The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

The Hidden Savant in You

Unconscious processes might hold the key to unlocking savant-like abilities

By Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow

Savant Daniel Tammet
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Savants can perform extraordinary cognitive feats much like trained experts, but unlike experts they usually cannot describe what makes them so talented, seemingly relying on intuition rather than conscious deliberation to quickly make choices. Intuition is word sued to describe that “gut feeling” we all sometimes have when trying to choose among different options. Intuition seems to guide our choices among things as simple as choosing an ice cream flavor or as serious as triaging critical care in an emergency room. Much research has focused on understanding just what intuition is and how it may work. The consensus among many researchers is that intuitions are judgments made by unconscious processes in the brain. While we don’t have conscious access to the deliberation process, that gut feeling might represent a way in which judgments made by unconscious processing become available for conscious reporting.

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Studies have shown that inhibiting activity in certain areas of the brain can facilitate solving geometric puzzles. For example, one particularly difficult geometric problem is called the nine-dots puzzle. The goal is to connect nine dots arranged three-by-three using only four lines without lifting the pencil from the paper or retracing the lines. The nine-dots puzzle is so difficult to solve, most studies report that nearly all participants fail to solve it. And they fail to solve it despite being given hints, a long time to solve it, or even 100 attempts. It’s so difficult because it requires that the participant look “outside the box,” breaking the imaginary boundaries formed by the dots.

Allan Snyder has used transcranial direct current stimulation (DCS) to alter the activity both in the left and right hemispheres. DCS works by passing a direct electric current through the brain, which either decreases or increases the excitability of neurons in a region of interest. Snyder placed the electrodes on either side of the skull, passing current through the whole brain. This causes both hemispheres to be affected in opposite ways—the excitability of one hemisphere is increased while the excitability of the other is decreased. Before stimulation, participants were unable to solve the nine-dots puzzle. But after DCS was applied for only ten minutes, specifically to decrease activity in the left hemisphere and increase activity in the right hemisphere, 40 percent of subjects were able to solve the puzzle.

Tasks like solving the nine-dots puzzle are notoriously difficult because of our brains are structured in such a way as to limit creativity. Snyder argues that the brain uses concepts from past experience to interpreting the world; concepts drive the unconscious processes that select possible information, which is then served up to rational consciousness for deliberation. Such a conceptual scheme may have an evolutionary benefit: the brain can become more efficient at processing the types of information it regularly comes across in the environment. Survival in the wild requires that one recognize a threat as quickly as possible in order to avoid harm. The conceptual scheme might be overactive at grouping discrete parts in order to overestimate rather than underestimate environmental threats. This overactive grouping, while evolutionary beneficial, appears to limit our ability to process much more abstract information. When we view something such as the nine-dots puzzle, we see it not merely as a bunch of random dots (which it is), but as an organized figure with strict boundaries. This is not something we have conscious control over. Our minds simply restrict how we approach such a problem.

The left hemisphere is thought to govern the role that right-brain activity may play in cognition. Inhibiting activity in the left hemisphere of the brain is thought to remove the predisposition to interpret random elements in meaningful ways, allowing for more creative solutions generated in the right brain to make it into consciousness. Interestingly, Snyder notes that one person who was excluded from the study was able to solve the nine-dots puzzle without DCS. At the initial interview, the person reported having sustained a head injury at about ten years of age and was excluded to ensure that all participants had similar backgrounds. But the man was interested in seeing how the experiment worked, so Snyder tested him anyway. It is plausible that the head injury affected the boy’s brain in a way similar to that of DCS allowing him to solve the puzzle.

Research suggests that brains are universally structured in such a way that these unconscious processes may limit our ability to solve complex problems. Savants thus may have a greater degree of conscious access to judgments of unconscious processes than non-savants. If this is the case, it is likely that most people have savant-like abilities merely masked from consciousness. As we become more skilled at manipulating brain processes through psychoactive drugs or electronic devices, we may be able to invoke savant-like skills in neurotypical people. 

Kristian Marlow is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab.

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