Professor Allan Snyder is one of the most creative and cool scientists I know. Recognized for discoveries in the fields of biology, communications, optical physics and neuroscience, he received the world's "foremost prize in communication and information technology", the Marconi International Prize, in 2001 - a prize previously bestowed on the inventor of the internet and the founders of google. His discoveries in brain science are hailed in the journal Nature as "breaking a 19th century mindset", and are declared "a breakthrough that could lead to a revolution in the way we understand the functioning of the human brain" by the New York Times. Snyder is currently the Director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney.
Snyder believes a 'thinking cap' might one day be possible, which would enable us to remove our ordinary filters of perception, and thereby improve memory, reduce prejudice, and make us more creative. Here I have a conversation with the award winning scientist who is inventing ways to access nonconscious savant-like skills, to enhance creative thinking, and to unravel the ingredients of extraordinary success.
S. You have argued that savant skills are latent in all of us. Could you please elaborate why you think this is true?
A. My hypothesis is that savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels. Due to a failure in top-down inhibition, they can tap into information that exists in all of our brains, but is normally beyond conscious awareness.
Several lines of evidence point to this interpretation. Savant skills appear to be universal - they don't seem to vary according to what's valued in a particular society. Across different cultures, savant skills are restricted to the same domains: art, music, calendar calculating, arithmetic, and mechanical/spatial skills. The skills can emerge without training, and they're not qualitatively improved by practice. In fact, savants generally don't have insight into how they perform their skill.
Compellingly, this applies (for example) even for savant skills that emerge later in life, as a result of damage to the left temporal lobes, through frontotemporal dementia, stroke, or physical injury. Patients can suddenly and spontaneously demonstrate skills for which they previously had no interest, ability or talent. This suggests that the basis for these skills was there all along, albeit beyond conscious awareness.
Further evidence for savant skills being latent in us all comes from our lab. We've been able to temporarily induce savant-like skills in normal individuals, using non-invasive brain stimulation. For example, we've artificially induced savant-like performance in drawing, proofreading, numerosity, and reduced susceptibility to false memories. I have speculated on this in greater detail in http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1522/1399.full and http://www.centreforthemind.com/publications/integer_doc.cfm.
S. Why do you think rTMS improves a person's savant-like abilities?
A. We use low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to inhibit the anterior temporal lobe, a region important for semantic processing, conceptual knowledge, labels and categories. In normal people, conceptual regions dominate over those that process literal detail. In effect, we attempt to inhibit (or reverse) this natural state of inhibition, to shift the balance in favour of greater access to literal detail.
Our approach is consistent with evidence that savant syndrome is often associated with left brain dysfunction or inhibition, together with right brain compensation, leading to a predilection for literal, non-symbolic skills. Or, as Oliver Sacks put it, normally, abstract and verbal powers are associated with the left or dominant cerebral hemisphere and perceptual skills with the right. We attempt to temporarily induce disinhibition of the right hemisphere in normal people.
Obscuring the meaning of something allows us to become more aware of the details that comprise it. By way of example, Betty Edwards, in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, developed techniques for improving drawing skills, including turning the object to be drawn upside down - the object's meaning is removed, improving attention to its details.
S. How successful have you been in inducing savant-like skills in normal individuals? If savant-like skills are latent in all of us, why don't your methods work on all of your participants? Could it be that there are individual differences in these abilities, regardless of whether they are initially hidden or not?
A. Our success in inducing savant-like skills in normal individuals using low-frequency rTMS has been moderate. Not everyone responds. There's a number of possibilities for why not all individuals show the same marked improvement. It's possible that individual differences in how detail-orientated people are to start with account for some of the variability. Some people may be closer to the precipice than others.
We're confident that savant skills latent in us all, but unfortunately there are technical issues and limitations - stimulation is less effective in people with thick hair or skulls :), and its effectiveness depends on the orientation of the brain's sulci (or grooves), as well as the amount of myelination (neural conductivity). And, TMS has relatively poor spatial resolution, making it hard to target a specific location or neural network. So, for all these reasons, it's likely that we stimulate the 'sweet spot' (or network) in some people more successfully than in others.
But, despite these complications, we believe that reliably getting any 'pig to fly' (so to speak) provides proof of principle, so we're encouraged. And, it's worth noting that our recent work using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is showing a more powerful effect.
S. Is it possible that the act of having the participants read the same sentence both times increases the chance that they will pick up the repeating word despite the fact they've received magnetic stimulation?
A. Yes indeed - that's why we compare the effects of stimulation with performance under sham stimulation (placebo). But, a famous neurologist of my acquaintance (guess who?) was once driven to distraction by my insistence that he repeatedly read one of the sentences - he failed to spot the duplicated word, even after many, many readings. It just goes to show how powerful our conceptual mind is. We tend to see what we know!
S. Are there any trade-offs to using your methods? Are there any abilities temporarily impaired when you stimulate the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL)? What potential negative consequences do you think could come as a result of turning on an area of the brain at the expense of disengaging another?
A. We haven't observed any trade-offs. But, we don't give our participants an exhaustive battery of tests - we can't, since the effect of brain stimulation wears off too quickly.
In theory, we'd predict that a person would become less conceptual, which might be reflected in a variety of ways. Consistent with this, Gorana Pobric and Matthew Lambon Ralph at the University of Manchester found that rTMS inhibition of the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL) produced difficulty in distinguishing concepts, particularly specific-level ones (e.g. golden retriever, more so than dog).
S. Why are savant skills suppressed in normal individuals?
A. Good question! For example, why can't we all draw photorealistically, like some autistic artists? The reason why this is so unexpected is that our brains obviously possess all the necessary visual information required to draw, but we are apparently unable to access it for the purpose of drawing. For example, our brain performs the calculations necessary to label three-dimensional objects. Yet, the difficulties of drawing even a simple sphere are legion. We are not consciously aware of how our brains derive shape from shading, perspective from gradients of texture, size invariance from distance, and so on. Somehow, autistic artists can directly tap into this lower level, less processed information, prior to it being integrated into the holistic picture.
We believe that these abilities are deliberately inhibited from conscious awareness in normal individuals. Awareness of ‘big picture' concepts, to the detriment of the details that underpin them, is neurally efficient. It enables fast interpolation and extrapolation, accelerating decision-making, especially when this is based on only partial information. While this approach can come at the cost of errors (such as illusions and prejudice), failure of concept formation means being overwhelmed by sensory details, leading to hypersensitivity and the need for rigid routines, to impose some order on things. The lack of savant skills seems a fair price to pay for neural efficiency.
It's interesting that normal people see only the whole, that it takes an abnormal mind to see the parts. I talk about this at length elsewhere (see http://www.centreforthemind.com/publications/JINApr04.pdf).
S. Why aren't all autistic individuals savants?
While the majority of savants are autistic, only 10% of autistic people are thought to be savants (although a recent study by Patricia Howlin from King's College London suggests the rate may be as high as 30%). This might be because autism is such a heterogeneous disorder - there's actually a spectrum of 'autisms', often coexisting with other conditions. One possibility is that the subset of autistic people displaying savant skills represents autism in its purest form, uncontaminated by other disorders, as originally characterised by a pioneer of autism, Leo Kanner, as early as 1943.
S. Are all savants autistic? Must these two necessarily go hand in hand?
The majority of savants are autistic, but savant syndrome can also emerge later in life, as a result of damage to the left temporal lobes (through frontotemporal dementia, stroke, or physical injury). For example, Orlando Serrell became a calendar-calculating savant after being hit by a baseball on the left temporal lobe. This is captured by the Discovery Channel documentary, "Savants" (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgrmoVWxTlY).
S. Why do you think savant skills are typically confined to specific domains such as art, music, calendar calculating, mathematics, and mechanics/spatial skills? What's so special about these domains?
A. The striking thing is that these skills are non-verbal. They are largely literal - literal memory, literal recall - and based on some form of privileged access. And, according to Darold Treffert, an authority on savants, they are 'right-hemisphere' skills (normally, abstract and verbal powers are associated with the left or dominant cerebral hemisphere and perceptual skills with the right).
S. When you say that savants have privileged access to raw, less-processed information, do you mean that savants somehow have the ability to see into the inner workings of a particular module (in the Jerry Fodor sense of the term module)?
A. No, although we believe different brain regions are (to some extent) specialised for different functions, we're not committed to modularity in the strong sense. We're saying that savants, unlike us, have conscious access to lower level, less processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels.
S. As you know, Daniel Tammet is a remarkable savant who can not only do amazing things but can do amazing things and also reflect on those things. You have referred to Daniel as a "Rosetta Stone". Why is that? What combination of factors do you think makes Tammet so unique among savants?
A. Yes, savants can't usually tell us how they do what they do - they say it just comes to them, they just ‘see' it. But Daniel Tammet can - he's able to describe the synaesthetic basis for his extraordinary skills. That's why he's exciting, why I've called him the Rosetta Stone. His ability to communicate and write about the inner workings of his mind amazes me - in my opinion, his books Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky are remarkable achievements, doubly so from someone with autism.
S. Why are autistic savant skills known to recede with maturity? What's happening in the brain that is causing the ability to go away?
A. Autism is a developmental disorder. I see it as protracted infancy, a pre-conceptual state. Everything is perceived literally and presumably this is associated with right-brain dominance.
With maturity, autistic people often become more conceptual and less literal, more left-hemisphere oriented. And, as I say, it's privileged access to literal detail that underpins savant skills. This process might be reflected in 'neural pruning' in the right temporal lobe, or articulation of the left, or both - we're a fair way off knowing. The shift is likely to be caused by a mix of deliberate 'training' strategies or programs and the incidental learning that occurs as a result of living in a 'neurotypical' world.
S. Isn't the right hemisphere localised for holistic processing? Why is it that unleashing (as it were) the right hemisphere causes an increase in more detail oriented thinking? Wouldn't you think it would boost holistic thinking instead? If savants are known to have a right-hemisphere bias, and the right-hemisphere is known to be localised for holistic thought, why would this bias result in detail-oriented thought - the opposite of holistic thought?
A. Firstly, we should have in mind that we start out in life being right-brain dominant and not holistic. This is a pre-conceptual, autistic-like, literal state.
The view that the left hemisphere is analytic, and the right hemisphere is holistic, has been around for a long time. But, it's controversial, and there are a number of paradoxes. At best, it's an oversimplification - there's a wealth of evidence that cognitive functions generally rely on the functioning of both hemispheres.
It's important to think about what's meant by 'holistic'. The literature often distinguishes the right hemisphere's holistic, or synthetic, processing from the left hemisphere's analytic approach. Left hemispheric analysis involves top-down processing, effectively producing a simplified, schematic model of reality. On the other hand, it would appear that right hemispheric synthesis is bottom-up, building from the parts to the whole to produce more veridical representations. This is consistent with our conceptualisation.
This left-right dichotomy is consistent with the observation that autism is associated with left-hemisphere dysfunction combined with right-hemisphere compensation, and with the finding that savant syndrome can emerge as a result of damage to the left temporal lobes.
In a fascinating recent book, Norman Doidge (2007) details the case of Michelle, who was born with only a right hemisphere. While Doidge rightly celebrates the remarkable neuroplasticity exhibited by Michelle, her case is also revealing about the roles of the two hemispheres. Michelle has sensory hypersensitivities, she's got an enhanced memory for literal details, and she exhibits savant skills in calculating - I'd argue that this is a direct result of her intact right hemisphere. And, she has deficits in concepts and abstraction, which I hold to be left hemisphere-based.
But, despite this evidence, we should bear in mind that this is all very complex, and the full picture has yet to emerge.
S. What would happen if you inhibited other areas of the brain instead of the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL)? Do you have any predictions as to what would happen if other areas of the brain were inhibited?
There's a growing body of research on the effects of rTMS, both low-frequency (inhibitory) and high-frequency (excitatory), on different parts of the brain. Unsurprisingly, because inhibiting parts of the brain temporarily reduces their functioning, performance can be impaired on related tasks.
But, the idea that inhibiting an area of the brain can actually improve performance is what fascinates me. Turning off part of the brain actually can switch on skills! And, in fact, 'paradoxical functional facilitation' via inhibitory rTMS is attracting significant interest, both in a clinical context and more generally. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School are leaders in investigating possible therapeutic applications. For example, low-frequency rTMS to the motor cortex shows promise for post-stroke rehabilitation, as does inhibiting the prefrontal cortex as a treatment for depression, to name just two. Stay tuned for new developments!
S. Given the enormous plasticity of the brain, are there ways of applying the TMS machine that could be integrated with brain plasticity improvement methods so as to correct disorders and improve brain function on a more permanent basis in patients?
A. Yes, as I've indicated, this is already being trialed for the treatment of stroke and other illnesses. And, I have wondered if it might be used to treat autism - if you can induce autistic-like traits using TMS, then might you be able to reverse them?
I have to say that this is not my area of expertise, but it's an interesting question. In 2004, I speculated in the journal Nature that a number of psychopathologies could be due to intermittent access to lower level sensory processes not normally accessible to conscious awareness (see http://centreforthemind.com/publications/AutisticGenius.pdf).
Schizophrenia, like autism, is a complex condition. The 'positive' symptoms (e.g. psychosis) of schizophrenia are often distinguished from the 'negative' ones. The negative symptoms actually share a resemblance with aspects of autism. But, the positive symptoms do seem to contrast with autism - they are far from literal, and can be construed as 'hyperconceptual'.
Apparently, clinical trials have investigated whether positive symptoms (e.g. auditory hallucinations) can be reduced by inhibitory rTMS to the left temporoparietal cortex. If it's taken that these positive symptoms are indicative of 'hyperconceptuality', then this is broadly in line with our approach. But, interestingly, some research suggests that stimulating the left or right hemisphere is effective in reducing positive symptoms. This research is in its infancy and it will be fascinating to see how it progresses.
S. What are the implications of your research for understanding intelligence, as measured by IQ tests? The latest research shows that those with severe autism display normal levels of performance on non-verbal tests of 'fluid intelligence' (abstract problem solving) and people with Asperger's actually have enhanced levels of fluid intelligence in comparison to normal individuals. Do you think your data and theory are consistent with these findings? What are the implications for the way we currently measure intelligence?
A. Again, intelligence (and its measurement) is not my area of expertise. My focus is much more on creativity, and I have discussed how autism, in particular autistic genius, might shed light on creativity (see http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1522/1399.full and http://centreforthemind.com/publications/AutisticGenius.pdf).
But, I do believe our approach is consistent with multifactor models of intelligence, such as the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory. Certainly, I think that differentiating amongst cognitive abilities is meaningful and useful in revealing patterns of cognitive ability, perhaps especially for people on the autism spectrum. Impaired concept formation in autism may be reflected in lower acculturated knowledge (crystallised intelligence). But tests of fluid intelligence (with the likely exception of esoteric analogies tasks, because of their reliance on metaphor) are ideally suited to revealing autistic intelligence.
S. If savant skills are a form of reproduction, how can the abilities facilitate creativity, as you claim they can? Isn't imitation the opposite of creativity? Do you think a dash of autistic intelligence may be essential for high levels of creativity in the arts and sciences? You have argued that there may be two radically different routes to creativity: the normal route and the autistic route. Care to elaborate on this?
A. Yes, imitation is the opposite of creativity, and savant skills are largely based on mimicry. On the other hand, the major bottleneck to our creativity is that we're blinded by our expertise, by our concepts or mental templates, derived from past experience. These make us fast at the familiar but blind us to novelty. We struggle to join the dots up in novel ways - we can't help but impose prior connections.
Autistic people are less blinded - I believe that they see the dots as dots, without trying to impose previous connections. That ability can be insightful, and can lead to so-called autistic genius. I introduced this idea in 2004 (see http://centreforthemind.com/publications/AutisticGenius.pdf) and have recently expanded upon it (http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1522/1399.full).
In isolation, neither the normal nor the autistic approach is an effective route to creativity. I agree with Hans Asperger, who as early as 1944 suggested that a dash of autistic intelligence might facilitate true creativity in the arts and sciences. Some form of privileged access to less processed information, however temporary, is probably crucial to paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions (to borrow Thomas Kuhn's terminology). As I suggested in 2004, the autistic mind builds from the parts to the whole, whereas the normal mind is more 'top-down'. These two approaches - the normal and the autistic - working in concert is ideally suited to true creativity. Might this explain why so many creative individuals suffer from psychopathologies, especially bipolar disorder?
Imagine if we could temporarily remove or reduce left-hemispheric dominance, allowing privileged access to literal details and hence a less prejudiced mind. This could facilitate us making truly novel connections. And this, ultimately, is my dream.
S. Have you ever thought about entering your subjects into creative/problem-solving contests like Innocentive.com, NineSigma, or another "open-source innovation" collaboratives? What results might you anticipate?
A. No, I hadn't thought of it. It's an interesting idea, but it has some practical problems. We try to stick with standardised tests, to maximise reliability and experimental control. And we need tasks to take less than around ten minutes or so, because the effect of stimulation attenuates quite quickly. If we were to do it, I imagine participants might produce more innovative ideas as a result of brain stimulation, that is, that it would increase originality and CQ (an information theory metric I co-invented, which captures both the number and variety of ideas, see http://www.centreforthemind.com/publications/CQPaper.pdf).
S. How might your theory have implications for our deepest notions of creativity?
A. A fundamental bottleneck to creativity is our inability to join the dots up in novel ways. We have a predisposition to impose prior connections. But, creativity would seem to require that we, at least momentarily, free ourselves of previous interpretations, enabling us to link disparate ideas into a new synthesis
But, I don't want to oversimplify the subject. Creativity is a magical quality - alluring, mysterious and quintessentially human. It has tantalised the imagination of great thinkers throughout the millennia, who have contributed immensely to our understanding. But, like a kaleidoscope you can turn this subject around, turn it around again, and again, and yet you always see something refreshingly new, something uniquely shaped by the observer. We at the Centre for the Mind keep turning that kaleidoscope.
S. Is it possible for someone to be a genius both in left hemisphere skills (such as language) and right-hemisphere skills (such as music)? If so, how is this reconciled with the competing hemisphere theory?
A. Of course - we humans are diverse and amazing creatures. To take a musical example, a number of popular musicians excel at writing both music and lyrics, and Richard Wagner (most famous for Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walkure) was notable - as an exception to the rule - for both composing and writing his own librettos. And, author/illustrators like Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) also spring to mind; as, of course, does Leonardo da Vinci.
While it's rare, those who have truly exceptional skills in both left- and right-hemisphere domains probably have reduced left-hemispheric dominance.
S. Do you think that ancient genius, like Leonardo da Vinci, had the ability to switch off certain parts of their brain, thus explaining the mystery of their greatness?
Leonardo da Vinci is one of my favourite exemplars of creativity! It's possible that he was able to switch between conceptual and literal ways of viewing the world. Certainly, some of his drawings and his observational approach to science suggest an aptitude for the literal, though in general, Leonardo seems to have been highly conceptual. But, did Leonardo master tricks to divorce himself from observing the whole, allowing him to see the parts, like Betty Edwards' drawing tricks?
I'd also suggest that the diversity of his contributions is key to his genius - working in so many different fields, he was able to take on more mindsets. In other words, he was able to take concepts from diverse areas to create a news synthesis. I've argued that the more mindsets we have, the more different views we have of the world, and the more creative we can be.
S. Do you see any way your methods could enhance higher thinking processes?
Yes. For example, using non-invasive brain stimulation could aid in problem solving and decision making, by allowing someone to examine things from a variety of perspectives, without being so committed to previous interpretations. And we're examining its potential for enhancing creativity.
A. Is an artist 'cheating' if he induces his artistic skills each time he creates a work of art?
Interesting question. It's well documented that artists though the ages have used psychoactive drugs to facilitate creative production. You could view non-invasive brain stimulation as a much milder and safer alternative method of opening 'the doors of perception'. On the other hand, if brain stimulation was only available to a select few amongst many competing for a prize or similar, that might be an unfair situation. But, we tend to put less value today on photographic realism - these aren't the times of Constable.
S. Must savant-like genius always be prompted by a psychologist in a lab, asking pointed questions? Or could this phenomenon be made endogenous and self-controlled?
A. Yes, it's an interesting idea. I've thought of combining brain stimulation with EEG-based neurofeedback to train people to access literal details on demand. But, this is futuristic - our techniques need to be refined before we'd pursue it. I wonder if Leonardo somehow learned to do this.
S. Do you foresee any potential for a more permanent enhanced state that you have been able to evoke with TMS?
Yes, it'd be possible. In a clinical context, repeated doses of TMS are given with the aim of (permanently) treating depression and other illnesses. The question is: would you want to be less conceptual and more literal, permanently? The neurofeedback method I mentioned would provide the best of both worlds, by allowing one to switch between 'big picture' and detailed thinking.
S. You have mentioned how you envision a 'thinking cap' one day that people can put on their heads to induce savant-like abilities any time they want to. Can you please elaborate on this grand vision?
A. Yes, I envisage a thinking cap that enables us to go uphill against our intrinsic cognitive design, that is, to remove the filters of perception, and thereby to improve memory, reduce prejudice, and make us more creative. This is admittedly futuristic, but increasingly it seems that it might one day be feasible.
S. If you did indeed produce a 'thinking cap', who would be able to use it, why, and what would the ethical implications of this be?
A. My idealistic vision would be for the thinking cap to be accessible to any healthy adult, enabling them to see the world literally and become less mindset. Maybe there'll be 'thinking cap bars', like oxygen bars, in the future, where people can pop in to top up on inspiration - just kidding, but who knows?
S. What would be the potential side effects of a thinking cap for day-to-day social interactions?
A. If the thinking cap more or less 'switched off' concepts and 'switched on' detail, then it could make social interactions awkward, autistic-like. But this is unlikely - the effect would probably be much more subtle. And, hey, let's not get carried away, we're leaping a bit forward here!
S. Will the technological ability to switch creativity on and off hinder or even prevent the possible evolution of a more efficient brain physiology?
A. Interesting! I suppose that's possible, if we were to spend an enormous portion of our lives being stimulated. But, given what we know about the brain and the complex two-way interactions between genes and the environment, it could well accelerate the evolution of the human brain.
S. You seem like a truly creative researcher with really innovative ideas. Perhaps you have already devised a thinking cap and have been keeping it all to yourself?
A. No, the thinking cap is a way off yet. And, if I had, would I be accused of cheating, like sporting champions accused of taking drugs?
I wasn't an exceptional student at school, and I think this actually helped me to become more creative. I couldn't rely on ‘textbook' approaches, so was poised (or forced) to invent my own ways of doing things. I would devote many hours to attempting what, looking back, was a novel synthesis.
And, I think that my creativity has benefited hugely from working in diverse fields, and from the cross-fertilisation that enables. It seems that the more different pictures you have of this world, the better. Somehow, our mind unconsciously juggles these different pictures, rearranging them for a new synthesis.
For example, I was awarded the Marconi Prize in 2001 for my insights about optical fibres for telecommunication. Surprisingly, this work was inspired not from research in engineering physics, but from my investigations of animal eyes!
S. Do you have any other grand visions you'd like to share?
I think it's enough to contemplate techniques that could, at least temporarily, allow us to go uphill against our intrinsic nature to be blinded by our mindsets. Just imagine what that could do for humanity! Just keep your eye on our website (see www.centreforthemind.com).
S. Thank you Dr. Snyder for this most thought provoking interview.
A. Thank you, Scott. It's provoked some intriguing new thoughts in me, too.
© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman
Note: Thanks to all of my students in Introduction to Cognitive Science (Yale University, Summer 2009) for being so brilliant and assisting me with the questions for the interview: Kimberly Ashayeri, Lauren Bremen, Ana Canedo-Rivas, Shangshang Chen, Jordana Confino, Maris Holmes, Jurell Houston, Brigitte Kivisto, Elizabeth Kramer, Rachel Kuschner, David Lee, Hae-in Lim, Vanessa Oates, Alyssa Schaefer, George Singer, Sherwin Soltani, Arber Tasimi, Yanbo Wang, David Witwer, and Jinghui (Elaine) Zhang.
Bio of Allan Snyder
Professor Allan Snyder is recognised for discoveries in the fields of biology, communications, optical physics and neuroscience. He received the world's "foremost prize in communication and information technology", the Marconi International Prize, in 2001 - a prize previously bestowed on the inventor of the Internet and the founders of Google.
He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, cited for contributions to both physics and visual biology. He is the recipient of the Royal Society's 2001 Clifford Paterson Prize for "contributions which benefit mankind." He was awarded the 1997 International Australia Prize by the Prime Minister of Australia. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and recipient of its highest award in mathematics and physics, the Thomas Rankin Lyle Medal.
He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and the recipient of its Sutherland Memorial Medal for "notable achievements in technological science, which have contributed to living standards and quality of life". He received the Tall Poppy Prize in 2000, honored as one of the "most outstanding Australian scientists of the 20th century" (Australian Institute of Political Sciences).
His other honours include the Harrie Massey Medal of the British Institute of Physics, the Mills Oration and Medal of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, the C.S.I.R.O. External Medal For Research, the Silver Jubilee Medal of the Royal Society of Victoria, and the Edgeworth David Medal of the Royal Society of N.S.W.
His discoveries in brain science are hailed in the journal Nature as "breaking a 19th century mindset", declared "a breakthrough that could lead to a revolution in the way we understand the functioning of the human brain" by the New York Times, "brave and original" in a New Scientist cover story, and are featured in The Times of London, the BBC, CNN, and Barbara Walters' ABC 20/20. The journal Science described his most recent contribution to physics as a giant step forward.
Previously, he was a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow at the Yale School of Medicine, a Royal Society Research Fellow at the physiology laboratories of Cambridge University, Distinguished Professor and Peter Karmel Chair of Science and the Mind at the Australian National University.
He is a graduate of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University College, London. Presently he is investigating ways to access nonconscious savant-like skills, to enhance creative thinking, and to unravel the ingredients of extraordinary success. Dr Snyder is the creator of the What Makes A Champion? forum, now designated an official Olympic Cultural Event held on the occasion of the Sydney 2000, the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the forthcoming 2012 London Games.
(For more information, visit http://www.centreforthemind.com)