Randy, a child prodigy, was seven when he abruptly announced the following:
"Truth is the word of being. People who are questioned by the being word must be answered. People who do not answer by the being word are afraid of their death. People who do say the being word open a new life. Truth is the word of being."
When asked by his mom whether he’d remembered this passage from a book he might have been reading, Randy said no, that he’d not read it anywhere. Puzzled and astonished, his mother wrote down the passage word for word. (Feldman, 1986a)
Another ‘out of the blue’ discourse was delivered to psychologist Joseph Chilton Pearce by his five-year-old son. Pearce was teaching humanities at college, engrossed in theology and the psychology of Carl Jung. One morning, as he was preparing at home for an early class, his son came into his room, sat down on the edge of the bed, and launched into a 20-minute lecture of his own about the nature of God and man. His son, Pearce recollects,
"...spoke in perfect, publishable sentences, without pause or haste, and in a flat monotone. He used complex theological terminology and told me, it seemed, everything there was to know. As I listened, astonished, the hair rose on my neck; I felt goose bumps, and, finally, tears streamed down my face. I was in the midst of the uncanny, the inexplicable. My son’s ride to kindergarten arrived, horn blowing, and he got up and left. I was unnerved and arrived late to my class. What I had heard was awesome, but too vast and far beyond any concept I had had to that point. The gap was so great I could remember almost no details and little of the broad panorama he had presented…He wasn’t picking up his materials from me. I hadn’t acquired anything like what he described and would, in fact, be in my mid-50s…before I did."
Later that day, when his son returned from school, he had no recollection of the event. (Pearce, 1992)
Moriah, age two-and-a-half, was in school when she suddenly came to her teachers
"...sobbing for her children and begging desperately for us to find them. This went on over the course of a couple of weeks…During each episode she would try to tell us more of what she thought we needed to know in order to find them. She named the French village where she lived and described the round barn where she raised ‘fire horses.’ We could tell that she truly believed if she could make us understand where they were that we could find them…she identified five children by name – three girls and two boys…Had Moriah not been so distraught and obviously grieving, we most likely wouldn’t have thought much of her saying she had children. But, because of the sorrow and real emotion, we knew there was something to it. Moriah during that time also described her passing. I don’t think she knew that as anything more than the last thing she remembered and it was vague; she said she was traveling on the road in her wagon, and she hit a boulder and remembered that she flipped off the road."
Adam, a precocious 18-month-old, was getting a bath after dinner. Suddenly he sat bolt upright in the tub, screaming "The men! They're coming!" His eyes appeared fixed on some distant object and he seemed unaware of who and where he was. When asked by his mother who "they" were, he replied with mounting hysteria that men in uniforms and guns coming to get him. His mom tried her best to assure Adam that he was safe in his own house and warm, soapy bathtub. Then, as suddenly as the episode began, it finished, with Adam seemingly unaware that anything out of the ordinary had taken place. (Feldman, 1986b)
In these cases, it seems, young children blurt out statements about things that obviously move them but seem very much beyond the pale of what they’ve read or encountered. As with savants, whether congenital or acquired, these children “know things they’ve never learned.” That phrase is from savant expert Darold Treffert of the University of Wisconsin, and his explanation is that savants – and prodigies, and all the rest of us as well – come with genetic memory, or what he calls “factory installed software.” Unconscious knowledge and the latent ability to do all sorts of things, he proposes, is in us based on what our family members knew and did themselves. According to his theory, we don’t all have the same memory bank; discrete knowledge and talent is distributed along a Bell curve similar to just about every other capacity that people have. But when a savant skill suddenly appears, or a complex religious or philosophical statement is made, or when a child recalls what seems to be a past life, the person is channeling an out-of-awareness ancestral memory. It’s roughly the same capacity as the instinct that enables geese to fly in a ‘V’ formation. They don’t think about it, they just know to do it.
Treffert’s idea is controversial. It can be easily be downgraded as unscientific, since genes code for proteins that may ultimately express a biological trait (eye color, for instance) – a far cry from coding for particular types of knowledge. His theory can equally be ridiculed as pointless. Even if specific types of knowledge enhanced survival and were, therefore, passed along to succeeding generations, where is the survival value in knowing the things that savants do? What is the survival value of learning to play a complex piece of music sight unseen…of drawing animals in extremely realistic detail…of reciting pi to the thousandth place?
I’m going to propose an alternate explanation, based on the fact that the special individuals explored in this blog series – synesthetes, people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, acquired savants, and child prodigies – often have something else in common besides environmental sensitivity. That something else is psychical sensitivity. And, while the possibility of anomalous perception may rub a lot of people the wrong way, science is an ongoing quest where we must realize, in all humility, that we don’t know what we don’t know. Anomalies, in the words of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California – San Diego, “show the depth of our ignorance.”
Following these ‘outlier’ experiences may, counter-intuitively, lead us toward a fuller understanding of how certain people can know things, do things, or perceive things that are so surpassingly extraordinary.
Feldman, David Henry (a). Nature's Gambit. New York: Basic Books, 1986, 193.
Feldman, David Henry (b). Nature's Gambit. New York: Basic Books, 1986, 195-6.
Pearce, Joseph Chilton (1992). Evolution’s End. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 8-9.