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Prof. Allan Snyder gave a talk this week at the Royal Society in London, about ways of unlocking ‘savant skills’ which he thinks lie dormant within all of us. Speaking at a discussion meeting on “Talent and Autism“, the eccentric (but brilliant) director of the Centre for the Mind (at the University of Sydney), detailed his research into artificially inducing ‘savant syndrome’ by using magnetic fields:

The savant syndrome is a rare condition in which people with autism or other mental disabilities have extraordinary skills that stand in stark contrast to their overall handicap. Savant skills are typically confined to five areas: art, music, calendar calculating, mathematics and spatial skills and these skills are accompanied by an exceptional ability to recall meaningless detail. In autistic savants these skills appear spontaneously at a young age.

Prof Snyder has been able to artificially induce savant skills in people who do not have autism using the inhibiting influence of low frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to turn off that part of the brain which controls all our inbuilt expectations.

“To do this,” says Snyder, “we direct magnetic pulses into the brain, to a specific site called the left anterior temporal lobe, which is near to the left ear. This site has been implicated in individuals who suddenly display autistic savant skills after injury or fronto-temporal lobe dementia.” The magnetic pulses are applied over the left anterior temporal lobe for 15 minutes using directed, low frequency rTMS.”

From what I’ve read of Snyder’s work in the past, his research seems to suggest that by shutting down some of the higher level processing, we can gain access to the ‘raw data’ without further interpretation. Anybody that’s ever tried to draw a person’s face will understand this – you have to forget what you think a nose ‘looks like’, and actually draw it as it is…which is usually just a line here, and a shadow there (the raw data).

At the discussion meeting Snyder spoke about these innate skills, and discussed why it is that savant skills are usually suppressed.

“Normally we are aware of the whole and not the parts that make it up. These attributes of objects are inhibited in normal brains” says Snyder. “Savants have access to the less processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and labels. Autistic savants tend to see a more literal, less filtered view of the world.”

You can learn a bit more about Professor Snyder’s research and thoughts in this interview (though it’s from 2001, so his thinking may have progressed some). You probably don’t want to try this at home, because other strange things have been known to occur when you combine magnetic fields and the brain… (h/t BoingBoing.net)

Previously on TDG: Savant Talking.