Conversation on Creativity with Darold Treffert, Part IV: Th

Darold Treffert, M.D. on the origins of extraordinary savant skills

Posted Apr 17, 2011

Darold Treffert, M.D. is considered one of the foremost experts on savantism in the world. Dr. Treffert has published two books on savant syndrome: "Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome" in 2006 and "Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant" in 2010. He has been a contributor to numerous articles in professional journals and has participated in many broadcast and documentary television programs around the world. In his efforts to raise public understanding about autism and savant syndrome he has regularly appeared on programs such as 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today, CBS Evening News and many others. Dr. Treffert was a technical consultant to the award-winning movie Rain Man that made "autistic savant" household terms and he maintains a very popular website at hosted by the Wisconsin Medical Society.

Dr. Treffert was gracious enough to have a wide-ranging conversation with me. Over the course of a few days, we had a delightful time chatting about autism, savantism, genius, nature, nurture, intelligence, creativity, lessons learned, recent advances, and the future. This was one of the most satisfying and elucidating conversations I have ever had. I learned many things and it is my pleasure to share our in depth conversation with all of you. In my view, this interview demonstrates quite clearly the need for more compassion and research on all different kinds of minds and ways of achieving greatness.

In this fourth part, we discuss the origins of the extraordinary skills of savants.

SCOTT: Out of the entire vast repertoire of human abilities, I find it remarkable that savant skills tend to be confined to five particular areas of special expertise: music, art, calendar calculating, lightning calculating, and mechanical and spatial skills. Why these abilities? What do you think is unique among these different abilities, and what does it say about the evolution of the human mind, and the evolution of domain specificity, or modularity, of the human mind?

DAROLD: That's a good question. The thing that got me started in savant syndrome at all was these young persons that I had on the children's unit that I started. There were three that had some savant abilities. One had memorized the bus system in the City of Milwaukee, another was severely disabled, but if you put a 250 piece jigsaw puzzle on the table upside down, he'd put it together just from the geometric shapes picture side down; another lad was an expert on what happened in this day in history.

Well, I got interested and began to look up what was available on savant syndrome at that time, and learned that it was first described by Dr. John Langdon Down in 1887, and it was about 75 years of research from the time that Down named the condition until I got my interest in it.

And one of the striking things about it that has puzzled me then, and continues to intrigue me now, is that of all the things that humans do, all of these cases which were largely anecdotal reports, they all had similar abilities: art, music, calendar calculating of all things, lightning calculating, and visual spatial skills. So I began to puzzle: how come?

Well, as I looked at that, these seem to me at least to be more right-brain than left brain skills because the kind of math that the lightning calculator does is unconscious. It's not a left brain sort of logical, sequential thing. It's unconscious and it's rapid, with no sense of how they do it. You see music and art typically, and in the beginning stages at least, there is a repetition, almost a photographic memory for both music and art. Calendar calculating also continues to come up in those 70 years, which seems like such an obscure skill.

And as I began to look into it, I've come to the conclusion that the reason for that is that these are largely right brain skills as opposed to left brain skills. And what happens in the savant, whether it's the congenital savant or the acquired savant, is that there is left hemisphere dysfunction coupled with emergence of right brain skills.

I originally thought it was a compensation, the development of right brain skills because of left brain dysfunction, but I've come to the conclusion now, or at least the observation, that it may not be that the person has deliberately compensated but rather there's an uncovering process of dormant capacity. In some of his work Kapur used the term "release" or "tyranny of the left hemisphere".

We are a left brain society, which is good. The left brain serves us well with logical sequential thinking and language. Those are remarkable abilities, but we rely on that so much to the exclusion of right brain skills that those remain relatively dormant, and sometimes are even seen as frivolous, thinking that we can get to them later when we retire kind of skills, but we've got this important left brain stuff that we have to do now.

So the answer to your question, at least from my observations, is that the reason that those skills, in those limited areas, tend to be right brain skills, are due to an offset to left-brain dysfunction.

SCOTT: But why calendar calculating? Why do you think that that's especially predominant in savants? What's so special about calendar calculating over evolutionary time that we would have evolved perhaps this unique ability?

DAROLD: In the book I separate out some mysteries that still remain about savant syndrome, and one of those mysteries is: why calendar calculating? It is just so striking to me. It's almost to the point-- show me a savant, and I'll show you a calendar calculator. It's not universal, but it is so frequent.

For example, in some of the acquired savants, these are people who never did any calculating or paid any attention to calendar calculating, but after they had the injury, or got hit in the head by a baseball, or whatever, suddenly they began to calendar calculate.

And I run across cases now-- I get probably, maybe two cases a day from around the world-- either a mother, or father, or teacher, or therapist is writing to me and saying, you know, I've come across this youngster and he or she is very musical and is able to reproduce music and so forth, and by the way, this person also calendar calculates. And I wonder why in the world that obscure skill!

Now, it's true that one can learn to calendar calculate. I mean, there are formulas and people can learn that, but none of us particularly bother to learn it because we can look at the calendar now with our iPhones. Everything is right there.
If you want to find out what day July 4th will be on your 50th birthday or whatever, you can look it up on your iPhone and there it is, so you don't need to calendar calculate.

That's one of the things that I've really been puzzled by and struck by and have been pondering. My own speculation is that I wonder whether there is a very early algorithm or chip in our head based on a time when the calendar, and the sun, and the seasons had real meaning in terms of survival.

If you go back in early days where survival depended on crops, and storing crops, and being able to survive winters, and so forth, the sun and the moon certainly have that kind of rhythm.

So my speculation is, at this point, and this may seem a little far off, but I think that may be a remnant of an earlier time where the calendar, and the seasons, and the sun, and the moon had much more meaning to us in terms of survival than it does now.

SCOTT: I think that's such an intriguing suggestion and to make sense of all of these sorts of domain-specific abilities, I think it's important to look at our evolutionary history and reoccurring patterns that natural selection could have operated on.

DAROLD: I think it is. When we get into what I call genetic memory, what we're talking about is that carrying forward of information from a earlier time. In short, we don't start with a blank disk, we come with all sorts of software, and other kinds of things, and that's the only thing that makes sense to me. I wouldn't pay that much attention to it if it were not that universal in savants and if it were not that prominent in people with severe disabilities.

I mean, we're talking about people sometimes at the severe end of the spectrum, who are able to calendar calculate, and they're not people who have studied the calendar. I know of a case of a blind girl who had never been exposed to even a Braille calendar and yet she was able to calendar calculation.

It's a little unusual for me to go that far out on a limb, so to speak, and to look that distantly for explanations, but I think with calendar calculating that's where we need to look.

SCOTT: It's really, really interesting. Why do you often find this triad of blindness, mental impairment, and high levels of musical ability in savants?

DAROLD: That's another one of the mysteries. When I began my look backward in 1962, what do we know about this condition, in these three individuals I saw, the calendar calculating thing came out. And the other thing which comes out with a striking conspicuousness in the cases in the past and the cases in the present is this triad of blindness, mental impairment, and musical genius.

Probably one of the most famous cases was that of "Blind Tom" Wiggins, back around the time of the Civil War. He was probably the highest-paid Black entertainer in the world at that time and developed a world-wide reputation. He had that triad.

And then in present day, Leslie Lemke, who is here in Wisconsin, or Derek Paravicini, in London, or Brittany Maier here, or Tony DeBlois. I can just continue to rattle them off because it is such a striking and recurrent triad. Now, why that is so, I don't know. When you find something with that kind of specificity, and that kind of persistence then maybe we ought to look at it. That may give us some clue to look at that population more closely.

SCOTT: Ray Charles.

DAROLD: Yes, indeed. You'll see many of the blind musicians who are not autistic have the same kind of swaying motions and some of the same kind of emotions that autistic musicians do. it's interesting that there is a fair amount of crossover between autistic-like behaviors in persons who are blind.

In fact, there's a fair amount written about that, and one has to be careful in people who are blind to not reach a diagnosis of autism-- there are charts that show what they share in common, and where they differ-- but there's a fair amount of crossover of autistic-like behaviors in blind people who do not have autism. That may be the link here that explains, at least the autistic-like behavior and the blindness. But how the musical "chip" fits in there, I don't know; but it certainly does somehow.

Many people may remember Leslie Lemke from the 60 Minutes program years ago with his mother May Lemke. In fact, the movie The Woman Who Willed a Miracle was about May Lemke and her son Leslie. When I first read the case report of Blind Tom, by that time I had met Leslie Lemke who's here in Wisconsin, I said, "My God, that's Leslie!" It was just uncanny the way in which it was discovered, and the characteristics that they described, and so forth, and they were almost exactly a century separated, and yet it was just a carbon copy.

That certainly still is one of the mysteries of this condition. And it continues to occur in the cases that come to my attention with conspicuousness. It's conspicuous in an already rare condition. Many of these persons are really remarkable musicians, like Derek Paravicini, for example, is now playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Leslie Lemke has a measured IQ of 58, I think, and yet he is amazing at parallel processing. Instead of asking him to play a piece after he's heard it, which he does all the time, we said this time, Leslie, play this with another person. And so the person starts a song he had never heard before. He waits about three seconds, and then he begins to play that with the person. So he's taking in what he hears, he's processing, and he's outputting it at the same time. That's parallel processing.

That's like the simultaneous translator that instead of waiting for the person and pausing, there are some people who are so bright that they can simultaneously translate when the person is speaking. That's parallel processing. So the level of musical sophistication in these individuals is really very high, although Leslie has never had a music lesson in his life. So, why that triad, I don't know. I think it may have to do something with the fact that there is a fair amount of crossover between blindness and autistic-like behaviors, but I don't know how to factor in the musical chip.

SCOTT: What is foreign accent syndrome?

DAROLD: Foreign accent syndrome is another one of the mysteries that I write about in my book. There are case reports now, maybe, I don't know, 40 or 50 case reports in the literature of people who after some kind of a incident, maybe a stroke or in one case it's a migraine headache, suddenly begin to talk, either with the accent of another country, a foreign accent, or sometimes actually will be talking in a language to which they've never been exposed.

One case I mention is a fellow who was an Austrian race car driver, and he was racing here in America and had an accident, and he had a concussion and emerged from the concussion fairly quickly. By the time the paramedics got there, he was conversing with them in English, which he had never studied or never spoken. And then after he recovered from his concussion, he was back to his Austrian language, and had no knowledge of the English language.

I've talked with and corresponded with language specialists about this because I'm not a language specialist, but what they say is that what you're witnessing are a change of consonants and vowels and a different way of approaching those which sounds like a foreign accent but is really not. It is simply the way the particular person is using these vowels and consonants and pronouncing it differently that it sounds like a foreign language but it really is not.

I think the best way to demonstrate that is with a couple of clips and let people draw their own conclusions as to whether the person had this accent.

Everyone mistakes them for having come from a different country which they've never visited. They're not pretending that they're German when they're really English so there is some controversy. I remain convinced that these people do begin to actually use the language, or at least an accent of a language that differs and that remains. So there's controversy as to whether foreign accent syndrome is really foreign accent syndrome, but I think some of the keenest descriptions that I've seen, and some of the clips that I've seen, and some of the people who have this happen to them is that it is a total change; it is an accurate new language or accent.

SCOTT: Many savants display extraordinary autobiographical memory. Do any display autobiographical memory of information they never actually learned in their own lifetime?

DAROLD: I haven't encountered that. I keep wondering. There are reports out there of people that supposedly will recollect, for example, a scene, or a village, or a place that their ancestors were in, but they themselves had never been there. And then, of course, you get into the past life regression sorts of discussions. But I've not personally or professionally encountered any instances in which the individual is recovering a memory from a former time very distant from where they actually lived or existed. So I haven't personally seen that.

SCOTT: I was wondering if you have any criticisms of any of Oliver Sack's really important work or methodology, because Daniel Tammet, in his book, criticized some of Oliver's work, including his portrayal of savants as having super-human abilities, specifically, the example of the matchstick counting ability.

DAROLD: I think that his report of the matchstick account, is probably true. I think there is subitizing, when people are ready to recognize numbers instantly and figures instantly. I have some reports of that in some of the savants that I deal with. For example, there was a hockey coach who had read about this, and seen Rain Man, the toothpick scene, which is really Oliver's Sack's matchstick scene with Charles and George.

And this particular hockey coach wondered whether that was possible, and he took, I don't know, 100 hockey pucks, because one of his players said he could do that so he threw these pucks on the floor, and the kid said, most instantly, 52, or whatever the number was, and they counted it and that was the number exactly. So that is possible.

I think the only criticism that I've seen comes from a Japanese mathematician who has written a couple of things that have been published about George and Charles doing 20-digit prime numbers. He takes Sacks to task for that in a way that I don't quite understand because I'm not that much of a mathematician.

But, other than that, I don't think that the matchstick thing is at all supreme. Some of Allan Snyder's work has to do with trying to measure savant skills by subitizing, so, I'm not critical of his work, actually.


Other parts of the series:

  Part I, Defining Autism, Savantism, and Genius

  Part II, Dispelling Myths about Autism

  Part III, Inside the Savant Mind

  Part V, The Acquired and Sudden Savant

  Part VI, What Savants Reveal about Greatness

  Part VII, The Inner Savant in All of Us

  Part VIII, Lessons Learned and Recent Advances


© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Dr. Treffert completed both medical school and a psychiatric residency at the University of Wisconsin where he is presently a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry. Following his training he developed the Child-Adolescent Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. It was there he met his first autistic savant in 1962. He then was Superintendent of WMHI until 1979 when he became Director of Community Mental Health services in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin where he now lives. Dr. Treffert has received honorary awards from the Wisconsin Mental Health Association, the Office of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He has been listed in The Best Doctors in America, by peer selection, beginning in 1979. He resides in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and is on the staff of St. Agnes Hospital in that community. His web site can be accessed at

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