We are all capable of the extraordinary savant skills displayed by people with autism according to Professor Allan Snyder, speaking at the Royal Society today. Snyder argues that it is our inbuilt expectations of the world that stop us from using them.
Prof Snyder spoke on the savant syndrome and his efforts to 'turn on' autistic savant skills in people who don't have autism at a discussion meeting jointly organised by the Royal Society and the British Academy. Snyder is director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, Australia.
The savant syndrome is a rare condition in which people with autism or other mental disabilities have extraordinary skills that stand in stark contrast to their overall handicap. Savant skills are typically confined to five areas: art, music, calendar calculating, mathematics and spatial skills and these skills are accompanied by an exceptional ability to recall meaningless detail. In autistic savants these skills appear spontaneously at a young age.
Prof Snyder has been able to artificially induce savant skills in people who do not have autism using the inhibiting influence of low frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to turn off that part of the brain which controls all our inbuilt expectations.
"To do this," says Snyder, "we direct magnetic pulses into the brain, to a specific site called the left anterior temporal lobe, which is near to the left ear. This site has been implicated in individuals who suddenly display autistic savant skills after injury or fronto-temporal lobe dementia." The magnetic pulses are applied over the left anterior temporal lobe for 15 minutes using directed, low frequency rTMS."
During one study conducted by Prof Snyder and his colleagues participants were asked to perform a specific task, before, during, immediately after, and 45 minutes after rTMS treatment, with tasks including drawing a dog, horse or face from memory in one minute, or proofreading a document.
The result was a major change in the drawing ability in four out of the 11 participants, two of these participants also showed a noticeable improvement in their ability to recognise duplicated words in the proofreading task. Their abilities returned to normal within about an hour.
In a similar study, ten out of twelve participants had an improved ability after the rTMS treatment to accurately guess a large number of objects in one and half seconds, an ability which faded after the treatment.
At the discussion meeting Snyder spoke about these innate skills, and discussed why it is that savant skills are usually suppressed.
"Normally we are aware of the whole and not the parts that make it up. These attributes of objects are inhibited in normal brains" says Snyder.
"Savants have access to the less processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and labels. Autistic savants tend to see a more literal, less filtered view of the world."
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