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Powers of the Mind

Are Savants Actually Just Using Simple Tricks to Perform Their Calculations?

Anybody that has studied ‘savant syndrome’ – where individuals are born with, or acquire, seemingly superhuman mental abilities to memorise, calculate, and/or display astonishing artistic or musical ability. But have we been fooled all this time by the equivalent of some cheap parlour tricks?

A new paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience – titled Dazzled by the Mystery of Mentalism: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Mental Athletes” – suggests that is the case, and that studies of these individuals may have presumed too much about how they do what they do:

Neural processing by mental athletes (MAs) has received attention from Neuroscience community, with several publications examining superior memorizers, lighting calculators, and savants. In this opinion, we contend that the presumption of extraordinary abilities in MAs is fundamentally flawed because their demonstrations involve tricks that regular individuals can learn. Since, these tricks easily escape the scrutiny of investigators, a high standard of rigor should be applied to research on MAs.

MAs seem to demonstrate abilities—for example, short-term memory and mental calculations—that by far exceed those of an average person. MAs’ performance is indeed impressive: for instance, some of them multiply two 20-digits numbers without annotating and the other memorize thousands of digits of π.

Yet, such demonstrations utilize tricks that are not apparent to the public but well-known to magicians. Using these tricks, virtually any person can reach the level of MA performance with some practice; no extraordinary brain is required.

Personally, I found the paper to be suspiciously keen on debunking the abilities of savants, with its exhortation that “scientists should be highly skeptical about the tempting assumption that extraordinary performance of MAs stems from a natural and unique gift”. And that suspicion was only strengthened at the end of the paper, when an odd non sequitur about Uri Geller is thrown in to the mix, followed by the statement that this paper, and others like it, represent “a step forward toward a more rigorous, mysticism-free cognitive neuroscience of prodigies”. Between the ‘magicians know how this is done’ through to the Geller mention and ‘mysticism-free’, it all smells rather James Randi-influenced…

There is no doubt that there are mathematical tricks to accomplishing some mental feats exhibited by savants (e.g. calendar calculation). The paper picks a few out as examples and shows how they could be done mathematically. But cherry-picking things that suit your theory, and ignoring plenty else, isn’t overly convincing.

Similarly, they pick out two savant examples and try to show how mundane their abilities are basically by throwing shade at them. As far as I can see, they basically accuse Daniel Tammet of making up his claims of how he calculates). And in response to Stephen Wiltshire’s drawing from memory, they simply say the accuracy of his illustrations have “not been confirmed or quantified by any real study”.

This superficial and rather shoddy ‘debunking’ of savant abilities seems to overlook many other cases that don’t fit their model. For instance, I cannot think of any cheap memory tricks that would allow Derek Paravicini to immediately recall, and replicate, any piece of music he hears.

And beyond that, it seems to completely disregard the fact that many savants are born with learning difficulties that would seem to preclude the idea that they studied a bunch of strategies and then consciously memorised them – especially when some of those individuals have difficulty with simple mathematics, which seems at odds with things like applying the formula for calendar calculation.

Instead, the assumptions in the paper could just as easily be covered by a theory that these strategies, and ability to memorise, are ‘hard-coded’ into the brain, and that savants have access to this, with the mental processing being done ‘in the background’. We don’t need to assume anything ‘mystical’, but I do think there’s still plenty that is astonishing about the abilities of savants that suggests our minds have hidden depths.

In the end, I do agree with the authors that the point of investigating prodigies “is to decipher the cognitive mechanisms by which they perform their feats”, and skepticism is certainly a part of that. But this paper seems a little too keen to portray these abilities as simply mundane magic tricks.

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