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No. 125: Sep-Oct 1999

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Our Untapped Talents

Errol Kerr, an English lad of 3, has a photographic memory and can already count to 10 in five different languages. Even before he reached the age of 2, he could name every make of car he saw on the road.

(Anonymous; "Boy Has Genius Figured Out at 3," London Times, March 1, 1999. Cr. A.C.A. Silk)

Comment. Kerr is certainly precocious and in him we see the glimmerings of capabilities we may all have but cannot tap. Unlike so many "savants" and "calculating prodigies," Kerr is not deficient in "normal" human skills. He is just unusually smart. He has partially penetrated a sort of barrier that seems to prevent most of us from drawing from a reservoir of remarkable mental capabilities. In savants and calculating prodigies, this barrier is ruptured and these talents flow readily to the fore -- but usually at the cost of some "normal" talents.

Two Australian scientists, A. Snyder and J. Mitchel, have studied the "savant syndrome" and have presented their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (B266:587, 1999). The gist of their paper was reported by R. Highfield in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"These savants are often autistic, a developmental disorder that leaves them with little ability to empathize with others. However, some possess astonishing skills.
"He [Snyder] believes the ability to tap raw information -- the mind's secret arithmetic -- is possessed by mathematical savants. They can multiply, divide, factor and identify prime numbers of six and more digits in seconds, or identify the number of objects they can see at a single glance -- 111 matches scattered on the floor, in one case."

Snyder's intriguing conclusion is that "...we believe that everyone has the underlying facility to perform lightningfast integer arithmetic."

(Highfield, Roger; "Study Adds Up to Formula for Math Genius," Chicago Sun Times, March 23, 1999. Cr. J. Cieciel)

A more technical review of the SnyderMitchel work has appeared in Nature. There, N. Birbaumer focussed on that mysterious barrier that supposedly prevents most of us from utilizing our innate genius. Unfortunately, his explanations are a bit murky and jargony.

In other words, the way we are programmed to think blocks or suppresses access to our reservoir of mathematical talents.

In his review, Birbaumer adds that the work of Snyder and Mitchel is contradicted by studies of non-savant geniuses, and, especially, experiments in which ordinary people are trained intensively to match the mental performances of the savants.

(Birbaumer, Niels; "Rain Man's Revelations," Nature, 399:211, 1999.)

Comment. Apparently, we can wear down that barrier separating us from genius by long, hard training -- at least when it involves arithmetic skills. As Edison is reputed to have said, genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

Or, possibly, we can program our "executive brain centers" better without compromising other capabilities needed to prosper socially, such as that empathy lacking in savants.

From Science Frontiers #125, SEP-OCT 1999. 1999-2000 William R. Corliss