Saturday, June 19, 2010

Can we all Possess Savant Like Skills?

My friend in New York sent me a link addressing the work of Alan Snyder who for many years has been arguing that within all of us reside hidden talents that can be unmasked through inhibiting certain regions of the brain. He goes so far as to state that this ability can constitute genius, more on that latter.  While I have a number of problems with the various assumptions embedded in the ideas of Snyder and his team I also acknowledge that most laypeople operate from the same assumptions and as do many professionals. Nonetheless the perspective of Snyder may have utility and so in the spirit of "News ideas are like seedlings, easily trampled", let's play the game and see what we can learn ...

Professor Alan Snyder is a physicist from the USA who emigrated to Australia many years ago, last I heard he was at the Australian National University and began the Centre for the Mind, a research group dedicated to understanding some of the more mysterious aspects of human cognitive abilities. He made some major breakthroughs in optical sciences that have been very important in optic fibre communication. As evidenced by this link the man is brilliant and widely respected. I vividly recall a TV interview with him several years ago. He stated how his colleagues were chastising him for not publishing much. There was a good reason for this, Alan Snyder was trying to address a fundamental problem in solitons. He spent several years addressing this issue. His behavior is entirely consistent with what the history of creativity reveals: "genius", and I think the word is overloaded with far too many mystical connotations(see Changizi on this), is born out of hard work combined with great skill. A couple of quotes help illustrate this:

Interview with Brahms:
"Who, in your opinion, was a perfect type of the creative genuis?"
"Beethoven. He had lofty inspirations, and at the same time he was an indefatigable worker. We all have to work hard."
Source: Multiple Minds, dreadful text.

AND ...

Even Mozart needed twelve years of concentrated practice before he could compose a major work, and much the same seems to be true of other composers.
Boden, M. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. (Great text)

In the spirit of the age Snyder has for many years turned his attention to the great frontier that is understanding nervous systems. This reminds me of something a elder statesman of the physics community stated when asked about advice to up and coming smart people and the career choices they should make. Weinberg basically stated forget about physics, go into neuroscience and computer science. There does now seem to be a trend where people from a variety of professions, from computing to physics, are turning to neuroscience for a research career. Actually it has only been in recent years that "neuroscience research degrees" have emerged, for the most part neuroscientists have arisen from other intellectual disciplines.

The basic argument of Snyder et al goes like this:

Savant like abilities are present in all of us but are inhibited because certain cognitive processes prevent us accessing more "literal, less processed types of representation". Thus he states:

Allan. My hypothesis is that savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels. Due to a failure in top-down inhibition, they can tap into information that exists in all of our brains, but is normally beyond conscious awareness.
 We've all experienced memory failures and we all know that if we can just stop being preoccupied with recalling something the memory tends to spontaneously arise when we are not consciously looking for that information. It is difficult and requires some practice but deliberately cultivating this habit of "spontaneous memory" is an excellent way to improve our recall ability. Now while such an ability is nowhere near the memory capacities of savants it is consistent with Snyder's assumption that some of our most important and basic cognitive skills arise not from conscious manipulation of concepts but from the great unknowns about human cognition.

The above recalled to me a fascinating comment made by the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. He commented that when he was thinking about mathematical problems, if someone walked into the room and asked him a question, he could not answer immediately because he had to wait for his brain to "switch over" to using language. This is very concordant with Synder's ideas and raises the suggestion that particularly brilliant people are capable of actively inhibiting certain neural processes so as to allow other "less processed"(damn that is a dangerous phrase but be good John!) information to be accessible.

Now I recall a statement made about Tchaikovsky's brilliant 6th Symphony, Pathetique. It was stated that he wrote this symphony very quickly and "all of a piece". That is, the whole theme and construction was clear in his mind. The final movement very much signifies death, which is interested given that Tchaikovsky died 9 days after conducting its first performance. Again, this spontaneous emergence of great work.

On TV some months ago I saw an interview with Paul McCartney from the Beatles. He was asked about the inspiration of "Yesterday", one of the most recorded songs in history. McCartney said he just got up one morning and wrote down the song but had no idea where the inspiration came from. A friend of his suggested the words may reflect the recent death of his mother and McCartney found favour in this idea. Oddly enough, in another recent interview McCartney stated he had little memory for most Beatles songs!

A song I greatly enjoy is "That's Entertainment" by The Jam. The writer of this song stated he had it sussed out while walking home from the pub one night. The lyrics are a set of vignettes on British suburban life.

The vastly over-rated Beat Generation icon, Jack Kerouac, wrote his most famous novel, On the Road, in approximately 3 days, albeit with considerable help from amphetamines. He wrote in such haste that to spare him the trouble of loading new pages he instead loading a hand towel roll into the typewriters. No punctuation, little grammar, just this massive outpouring. Truman Capote summed it well when he said of this work, "That's not writing, it's typing." Initially Kerouac had no luck in finding a publisher but someone encouraged him to tidy the work up. It went on to become a best seller and undeservedly so.

We also have the often mentioned inspiration occurring in dreams, Kekule's snakes being the most frequently cited example. If you read the Wiki link though there is now some doubt that Kekule actually had that dream.   The emphasis on dreaming and creativity is way overblown. If you look across the spectrum of conceptual and artistic breakthroughs these are achieved in so many different ways we should be very wary of ascribing too much power to any single means by which the breakthroughs were achieved.

There is a story, perhaps a myth, about a famous golfer playing at Saint Andrews golf course, which has a railway track close by. (I think that is the course but this memory is post 20 years old sooo .... ). The golfer made a brilliant shot while a train was passing by. Someone asked him, "Didn't that train upset your concentration?" He replied, "What train?" Suppression of extraneous stimuli does appear to be an important ability in skill enhancement. This is concordant with the themes Snyder is exploring.

Sporting performance can be illustrative of the idea that to maximise our performance we need to minimise some cognitive functions. When training we are improving our skill base, when in competition we leave that behind and focus on goal of winning. No time to think about how to swing the bat or catch the ball, we become, as they say in tennis, "in the groove", and that often is when the best performance occurs.

The above points help to illustrate the general thrust of Snyder's approach. I think he is onto something but I have no idea what that something is. Now at this point I am tempted to proffer a series of statements as to why I think Snyder's approach is fundamentally flawed and while fascinating it is not really explaining anything about savant like behavior. I have been actively inhibiting that temptation all the way through this. I will, however, say this: Snyder goes way to far when he equates savant like abilities with genius. Nontheless, if you are interested these links may be of interest to you:


Steve Edney said...

Hey interesting article, I knew (or more correctly knew of) - Alan Snyder from his days in non-linear optics.

It seems fairly convincing that he is on to something. I remain skeptical that it is anything close to the whole story of what he is trying to explain.

However I am quite sure that you more or less switch of parts of your brain when you are entirely concentrating on something. (Or at least some can)

I can think of numerous examples for myself similar to what Penrose discussed. When I am totally engrossed in something that is analytic - some maths/physics problem or more recently I've been playing chess enthusiatically. If interupted I would have to completely drop out of what I was doing to be able to make even a trivial yes/no response. There is not doubt that when I am in such a state - which would happen regularly but probably not the majority of times in either activity then I certainly do my better - whether that is solving maths problems or playing chess.

I've often thought that this must be similar to the sorts of state people reach in meditation.

John said...



Snyder is opening a door for new treatments to address brain injury. The strange thing about magnetic fields is that these have been demonstrated to confer beneficial effects on conditions like Parkinsons, Alzheimers, and depression. There is no clear understanding of why magnetic fields have such an impact, let alone the multitude of studies indicating worrying impacts on physiology in general. My view is that this is a game for biophysics, we have to incorporate, electrons, protons,(densities, locations,electron orbit positions)and molecular charge distributions in our models.
I'm too ignorant to know how to even think about that issue let alone think about it.


Snyder's target appears to be to inhibit two critical language areas: Broca and Wernicke, plus the temporal lobe elements, which suggests semantic memory location. Another important structure here is the angular gyrus, a large group of axons that project from the visual cortex to one of those language areas. It is surmised that this groups of axons allows the identification of words with associated semantic memory contents.

Caveat: a magnetic field is a very blunt instrument, we don't understand what happens, we see observable changes but there are probably many hidden agents. Also, my neuroanatomy is very weak.

Perhaps language can be an analytic tool, I'm not sure about that, but what Snyder and others illustrate is that there are many ways of analysis. I prefer to think of language as a reporting function. A recent study showed that contrary to the view that language is primarily about that left hemisphere region, the full utilisation of language spans many cerebral areas. Here though, perhaps what Snyder is targeting is primarily the reporting function. Knock out that function through magnetic field induced inhibition. Various studies indicate that individual brains operate in states or modes of behavior, there is neural entrainment, where neurons fire synchronously, which seems especially important in attention issues, and sufficient imaging studies to indicate that the brain can and does shift through states of operation. So perhaps what Snyder has done is discover a shortcut to enables external manipulation of state of cerebral operation.


In relation to meditation there is the famous example of the neuroscientist turned Tibetan Buddhist who returned to have an imaging study done at a US research centre. These two bods, the happiness guys I think, Seligman and ?, had developed a neuro-imaging measure for mood states. When they measured the now Buddhist, they stated by their measure his happiness was "off the scale".

In my perspective I perceive meditation, especially in the Zen and Mayahana aspects, as to be primarily a proto-psychology, a set of tricks to uncover the nature of thinking. Early studies on meditation showed that experienced meditators were much more able to suppress distractions.


Our education system hardly facilitates the active exploration of thinking. If so it does so primarily at the level of language, of reporting information. That is very valuable but I wonder if there is a skew in our educational philosophy that is depriving students of discovering aspects about their cognition that is not just about telling someone else what I thought. It may be the case that if we can train young minds to explore all the types of analysis available to their minds that we will uncover a great deal more talent in the general community. That's utopian but would represent a genuine education revolution.

PS: In regard to utopian educational programs I recall a program many years ago where it was asserted that Venezuela was going to institute an educational philosophy based on the ideas of Edward de Bono. Yeah, look at ém now, worked great Mr. De Bono!

Steve Edney said...

Hi John,

This seems as appropriate a place as any to ask this question. I have been reading "The Brain that Changes itself" Norman Doidge, I was wondering if

1) you had read it
2) what you as a related area researcher thought of it.
3) what you thought of the quality of the science presented
4) neuroplasticity itself.
5) his argument in the book that it more or less proves pyschoanalysis works.

Just as an aside I have quite enjoyed the book but wanted to get a more informed opinion.

John said...

Hey Steve,
1 & 2.
Haven't read the book. It is my impression though that the popular neuroscience books are generally of a very good standard. Good place to start, certainly nothing like reading Gary Zukav to understand QM!

3. Quality of the science.

In regard to neuroplasticity the learning curve is very steep, great gains are being made. One of the most remarkable clinical finds of latter years is constraint induced movement therapy. In this therapy, often for stroke patients and now being employed with success in cerebral palsy, the patient who has lost mobility in one arm has the other arm immobilised and is then instructed to attempt to move that arm. This eventually causes movement to return to the previously immobile arm. Hard to know how this effect is being mediated, possibly by the corpus callosum or in the basal ganglia. Prior to this therapy though such an outcome would have been way out of current understanding. This is even more true when in a study on children with cerebral palsy it was found that the same side motor cortex took over the functions for both limbs. Remarkable.

This recent find holds great promise for stroke victims:

These oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs), are of intense interest, because new research shows that they can transform not only into mature oligodendrocytes, but also into astrocytes and neurons under the proper conditions.

John said...

AND ... (Blogger has a 4096 character limit)


Baroness Susan Greenfield loves to give this example: They took 3 groups of people, the control did nothing, another imagined they were playing the piano for specified times during the week, the other played the piano for specified times during the week.

The result, no change in control, slight increases in finger control regions in the imagining group, big increases in the practice group.

These increases are in multiples Steve, not just at the margins but very large increases in the cortical region controlling the fingers.


Think about this:

Dr. John Robert Skoyles

"Our brains differ as much as our bodies. Indeed they may differ more. One part of the brain, the anterior commissure ... varies seven fold in area between one person and the next. Another part, the massa intermedia ..., is not found at all in one in jour people. The primary visual cortex can very three-fold in area. Something called our amygdala ... can vary two fold in nature - as can something called the hippocampus. Most surprisingly, our cerebral cortex varies in non-learning impaired people nearly two-fold in volume. "


Studies on depression indicate that it can shrink the hippocampus by up to 20%, and that the hippocampus can recover its volume.

Ever heard of echo location in humans? Can happen when blinded early in life, the auditory axons actually extend into the visual cortex, enabling that region to "map" the landscape by sound. Remarkable.

Early monocular deprivation can induce a like change in the visual cortex. Some neurons there are dedicated only to one eye but when that visual input is lost those neurons will start receiving axons\dendrites from the other eye.


Long ago a rather brilliant chap, Gerald Edelman, came up with the concept "neural darwinism". Basically he argues that the brain is evolution exponentially accelerated, allow rapid adaptation. Given research of recent years it appears that Edelman was prescient.


One reason I am cautious with the modularity hypothesis is that it suggests a rigidity in cerebral organisation that is contradicted by much evidence. Yes, there is modularity at play but also yes the brain is not nearly as constrained by modularity as some proponents of the hypothesis assert. Neurosurgeons go to great lengths to map individual brains precisely because each brains are very different. Again, at the general level we can state that this region controls function A, but "this region"can vary greatly in size.


Very occasionally, for intractable epilepsy, doctors will remove the entire side of a cerebral cortex and perhaps some underlying cerebral tissue. This can involve the left side so there is always the worry that language skills will be lost. In some patients though because of the extensive damage arising from the fits the brain has already shifted language function to the right side of the brain. The language is good but subtle testing will typically reveal changes in language performance.

And I need to stop here because of character limit on Blogspots.

John said...


Not sure what he means by psychoanalysis. If he is referring to cognitive behavioral therapy the clinical evidence is supportive of the claim, if he is referring to Freudian, Jungian, Fromm, I'm unaware of any clinical evidence. In regard to any clinical approach though, I generally prefer to see clinical evidence, not neuro-biological evidence.

John said...


This only came up in the last few days but really strikes a chord with me. It reminded me of earlier research by Marion Diamond, circa 2 years ago, that claimed the EEGs of children from deprived backgrounds were like those of people with brain injury.

Thus as McCloskey argues: inequality is not the problem, but poverty is. Only now we are finding that the vicious cycle of poverty is not just sociological, it has deep neurological roots in developmental processes.

Children's Genetic Potentials Are Subdued by Poverty: Effects Show by Age 2

Steve Edney said...

Thanks John,

Basically I think it was 85% a good book and certainly interesting, it discusses several of the things you mention the constraint induced movement therapy, and the example of the people thinking about playing piano and other experiments in that vein. someof the stuff aoubt seemingly unrelated brain exercises improving autism was also very interesting.

He seems to pretty much be a Freudian certainly he is a big fan of Freud and these sections fall into the oher 15% of the book that I was less impressed by. He seems to be aggreived by people who would have doubted a "talking cure" could help people and that neuro-plasticity has proven him right. Anyway when he was just discussing the neuroplasticity research I thought it was great and very interesting.