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No. 58: Jul-Aug 1988

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Mystery Of The Idiot Savant

To describe the enigmas of the idiot savant, we can do no better than quote the first two paragraphs of a review article by D.A. Treffert:

"At the 1964 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, a discussant concluded, 'The importance, then, of the Idiot-Savant lies in our inability to explain him; he stands as a landmark of our own ignorance and the phenomenon of the Idiot-Savant exists as a challenge to our capabilities.' In the years that have followed, the inability to explain the idiot savant has not lessened, and the challenge to our capabilities remains undiminished. However, no model of brain function, particularly memory, will be complete until it can account for this rare but spectacular condition, with its islands of mental ability in a sea of mental handicap and disability.

"Through the past century, since Down's description of this disorder, the several hundred idiot savants reported in the world literature have shown remarkable similarities within an exceedingly narrow range of abilities, given the many possible skills in the human repertoire. Why do so many idiot savants have the obscure skill of calendar calculating? Why does the triad of retardation, blindness, and musical genius appear with such regularity among them? Why is there a 6:1 male-to-female ratio in this disorder? What accounts for the more common occurrence of the idiot savant among patients with infantile autism than among those with other developmental disabilities?"

Other questions that can be framed based on the rest of the paper are: How do some talents arise from injuries? Why do some talents disappear when other, different, skills are learned?

Treffert admits to science's complete bafflement over this phenomenon. No wonder, for how can we, in our present state of knowledge, account of these two cases:

(Treffert, Darold A.; "The Idiot Savant: A Review of the Syndrome," American Journal of Psychiatry, 145: 563, 1988.)

Comment. Note that many child prodigies, who are different from idiot savants, lose their talents as they age.

From Science Frontiers #58, JUL-AUG 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss