Saturday, December 1, 2007

An old story but.... the Real Rain Man and Savantism

In 2005, Scientific American published a story on Kim Peek, the real life inspiration for the character Raymond Babbitt played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Peek has what is known as savantism (savant syndrome) in that he has extraordinary mental / memory skills and yet has severe mental disabilities.

Credit: Scientific American

Peek's brain has numerous congenital abnormalities including macroencephaly (i.e., he has a very large brain) and an undersized cerebellum. Most notably, his brain lacks all major connections between the left and right cerebral hemispheres... for the anatomy students that is the corpus callosum and the anterior / posterior commissures. Interestingly, Peek has not been diagnosed with autism although many savants have autism or autistic characteristics.

Savant syndrome describes a person having a severe developmental or mental handicap with extraordinary mental abilities not found in most people. This means a lower than average general intelligence (IQ) but very high narrow intelligence in one or more fields. Savant syndrome skills involve striking feats of memory and arithmetic calculation and sometimes include unusual abilities in art or music. Savant syndrome is sometimes abbreviated as "savantism", and individuals with the syndrome are often nicknamed savants. Credit: Wikipedia
Savants are fascinating given the inconsistency between being mentally handicapped while still possessing nearly incomprehensible mental capabilities. The mental skills of savants raise interesting questions: Does their congenital brain damage stimulate compensatory development in some other area of the brain, or does it simply allow otherwise latent abilities to emerge? Below is an example of Peek's memory capabilities... anybody who reads Tom Clancy novels knows that they are dense with info and long... making this all the more impressive:

"He can, indeed, pull a fact from his mental library as fast as a search engine can mine the Internet. He read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October in one hour and 25 minutes. Four months later, when asked, he gave the name of the Russian radio operator in the book, referring to the page describing the character and quoting several passages verbatim. Kim began memorizing books at the age of 18 months, as they were read to him. He has learned 9,000 books by heart so far. He reads a page in eight to 10 seconds and places the memorized book upside down on the shelf to signify that it is now on his mental hard drive." Credit: Scientific American
To learn more about Savant Syndrome visit the Wisconsin Medical Society website. Watch video of Kim Peek... the Real Rain Man.