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The Mystery of Savants: How Can They Have Expert Knowledge Without Learning?


There is something mysterious and awe-inspiring about savants. While most people have to learn and study for years to gain knowledge, savants possess unparalleled skills and knowledge without any previous learning or instruction. How is this, the mystery of savants, possible? Let’s take a look at what we know about the phenomenon of savantism.

by David Stone

What Is a Savant?

Savants are individuals who possess exceptional skills and knowledge in a particular area despite having limited overall cognitive functioning. So remarkable, these people were previously known as “idiot savants” because many were extremely disabled mentally but were geniuses in specific areas.

For example, some savants can perform complex calculations in their heads while others can memorize long lists of seemingly random numbers. Not all savants have mathematical abilities, though. Some are gifted musicians, artists and writers.

Some Well-Known Examples

Understanding the mystery of savants in three examples.

Kim Peek – The Inspiration for “Rain Man”

Kim Peek is perhaps the most famous savant in history. He was born with severe physical disabilities as well as an IQ of only 87. Normal average IQ is 100.

However, Peek became famous for his astonishing memory. He recalled entire books verbatim and rapidly answered factual questions from books read decades before.

In fact, he remembered some 12,000 books. His extraordinary memory inspired the popular 1988 film Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.

Stephen Wiltshire – A Photographic Memory

Stephen Wiltshire is another example of a savant whose accomplishments were remarkable. Born in London in 1974, Wiltshire has autism and an IQ of 75; however, his photographic memory allows him to draw detailed panoramas after seeing them just once.

At age 9, he drew a stunningly accurate three-dimensional aerial view of Rome—all from memory.

Wiltshire became an internationally renowned artist, his work exhibited in galleries around the world.

Daniel Tammet – A Mathematical Genius

Daniel Tammet is yet another with special abilities. He achieved greatness despite his low IQ (estimated at around 70).

Tammet holds several records related to mathematics, including reciting pi from memory up to 22,514 places! He also holds the Guinness World Record for calculating the largest ever number within one hour. It was 819 digits long.

What’s truly amazing about Tammet is that he doesn’t rely solely on rote memorization; he actually understands what he’s doing and can explain mathematical concepts in great detail using language rather than numbers or symbols.

The stories of these remarkable individuals demonstrate that even those with severe disabilities can achieve incredible things if given opportunity and support.

While savants may not possess typical intellectual abilities or academic qualifications, their unique gifts should not be overlooked or underestimated. There is much we can learn from them about human potential and perseverance in the face of adversity

Theories About the Mystery of Savants

Scientists have been studying savants for decades in an effort to understand how they have such amazing skills without learning them first.

One theory suggests that savant skills are actually latent talents that were always hiding within the individual but that only become noticeable after suffering from an acquired brain injury or disorder.

Other theories suggest that savant skills may be related to enhanced memory recall or the ability to recognize patterns quickly and accurately.

Neither of these are satisfy, though, when a savant hears a Mozart piece once and can’t read music but is suddenly able to play the tune effortlessly.

Implications of Savantism

Studying savantism has implications beyond just understanding how these individuals gain their abilities. It can also provide insight into how the human brain works.

For example, studying savants may reveal new information about learning processes, memory formation, and how different parts of the brain interact with each other.

This research could ultimately lead to breakthroughs in treatments for autism spectrum disorders and other neurological conditions.

Savantism remains largely mysterious, yet it is a fascinating phenomenon nonetheless.

By continuing to research these individuals, scientists may unlock the secrets of how they acquire their astonishing skills without any prior learning—which could potentially help us better understand our brains as well as discover new treatments for neurological conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Understanding more about savantism gives us insight into what makes us human—our amazing capacity for learning and growth.

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