Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Beautiful minds - 'in a world of their own'.

  Photo: Sylvia Nasar. Economist and Author of ' A Beautiful Mind' Posted by Picasa


Last Sunday I watched the last of three programmes on savants – or as they are called the ‘knowing ones’.

Savants are very special individuals that have one amazing passion. Possibly the most well known savant was featured in the film ‘Rain man’ portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. Based on a particular individual who had an amazing mind for mathematics and, in common with other savants, was very limited in social and relationship areas.

The programme made viewers wonder about the amazing potential that lies within us all.


The question is that if they have never been taught their ‘wonderful knowledge’ how did they get to acquire such an amazing ability. Although most of the savants were born with their ability there have been cases of others gaining such amazing power after a knock on the head! One individual, after such an incident, became an expert on dates from the moment of the accident with a recall of everything that had happened on every day since but not before! Another changed from an admitted hardened criminal to a sensitive artist and poet.

The capacity of the brain is infinite. Lucky for most of us so called 'normal' people our brains suppress, or filter out, most of the information coming our way but for the savants their brains take in everything in their particular sphere of interest without interference. It is as if they have no ‘delete’ button; their mind, like a ‘google’ search, recalls everything! And as a result they miss out on capacities such as social and practical skills that we all take for granted.

It is lucky for us that we filter out all but what is essential for us to survive and what remains, pegged by our emotions, becomes the sum of our memories. Not so for the savants, many can’t dress themselves or find their way to a place that they visit regularly – they pay the price for their phenomenal and to many an incomprehensible ability.

Savants, as result, are in world of their own!

For ‘normal’ people 90% of our days are lived unconsciously but each of us has a hidden range of talents that can only be made accessible by being in appropriate environment. The concept of multiple intelligences or talents has been explored by Howard Gardner who has researched over eight ways of ‘being smart’ – each with a range of possibilities and degrees of depth.

The question is how many talents are hidden in our heads?

Those, whose misfortune it is to have one talent taken to such a depth that it limits other areas of humanness, find it hard to be ‘normal’. Others, it seems luckier, we calls prodigies or genuiuses, but even they find many areas of life problematic to various degrees. Along with savants many such 'gifted' individuals find themselves placed in special schools – or simply find school difficult for them. There seems a fluid line between savants and genius.

Our ‘one size fits all’ mass education system just can’t stretch to fits such talented individuals. And their talents beg the question, ‘How did they learn to do what they can do – without school?’

But back to the savants; many of then suffer degrees of autism and aspergers along with many of those we call the talented and geniuses. Teachers will be aware of such children in their classes and struggle to accommodate their needs.

There are savants who are incredible artists.

Others have phenomenal mathematical ability.

Others are incredible musicians.

Opening up the secrets of brains of such enigmatic individuals are areas of research for many scientists. Well over half have been found to be autistic. Many of the great intellectuals of the past may well have been savants to some degree: Da Vinci, Newton, Mozart and van Gogh come to mind and in recent times, Einstein. ‘Ordinary’ people find it hard to understand such people. It was said that Einstein saw things with a naivety as if through the eyes of a child.

It was fascinating to see one individual being studied to see how well he could remember and draw five blocks of Rome from memosry after a forty-five minute helicopter flight. Given four days, and a five metre piece of paper, he could draw every element of every building seen! He noticed everything.

Another individual could model horses, and animals, perfectly but struggled with people. This amazing individual began his talents after a knock on the head at 31. He is now 'compelled' to sculpt animals. When put him a special class to learn ‘normal ‘things he scraped putty from windows to make his models.

Compulsion is a mark of all savants and geniuses – and potentially of all students given the right environment. We are all born with an inbuilt desire to learn.

A young person, deeply autistic, discovered a hidden talent for jazz. He could compose original jazz pieces – ‘the music was in him’.

The original ‘Rain man’ was dismissed as a 'retard' at nine months still, and can't dress and brush his teeth, but can recall every book he has ever read and play every song he has ever heard!

The point being made by the programme was that we all come with ‘software’ in our brains for a range of abilities installed – all we all need is the opportunities to express them.

Brain research shows that when such individual (and all of us) achieve something their brain rewards them with a chemical, dophomine – which provides a ‘high’ or ’joy of learning’.

The savants show us that their genius is the result of purity of perception – they absorb everything in their particular area of interests or obsession. They see the world as it is, with no filtering, while we, the more ‘normal’, see things through ‘mindsets’ that interpret experience for us.

Could we help our students escape 'the tyranny of imposed mindsets' to see things with more clarity – by bi passing the brain 'mindsets'? By: making use of more first hand sensory or real experiences; by creating multi- dimensional environments more conducive to allowing talents to emerge; by exposing students to a range of rich mathematic, scientific and artistic experiences full of intellectual temptation; by building on the strengths of our students rather than trying to teach then what they are often not interested in; or by developing learning environments that reduce stress and distractions.

The savants work compulsively only in areas that interest them. One savant was interested in knowing all about roller coasters (but not in riding them). I taught a young boy once who was deeply interested in the sewers of London – and little else!

For most of us, as we get older, we lose brain circuits that are not used but savants keep all the neurons in their areas of interest at the expense of skills we take for granted.

The last programme looked at male female diffences. Half of those defined as savants are autistic and six out of seven are male. Researchers have defines two kinds of brains, an ‘e’ brain (for empathy and relationships, and an‘s’ brain (for ‘system’ or logical thinkers). Autism, caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, is male logic at its extreme – an exaggeration of a male ‘systems’ brain operating without regard to people. Autistic people take everything literally at face value and find it difficult to interpret ambiguous situations or what others are thinking.


Today most of us see male and female brains as androgynous but research is indicating that male and female brains have different evolutionary pathways and provide different contributions. One savant, as mentioned earlier, after a stroke, changed from a career of crime to being a sensitive artist and poet.

It begs the question, ‘Who is he?’

So it seems women are the gentler sex, or perhaps it was suggested, woman use more subtle forms of violence by withdrawing of love! Male brains display a better sense of direction and parking of cars while women are more articulate and cry at movies! We all have elements of both but savants have pure ‘s’ brains. Female traits, many feel, may now have more survival advantages today and this possibly contributes to girls doing better at school!

There are a lots of implications arising from the study of savants and talented people, particularly for teachers who believe it their job to ‘delver’ curriculums to ensure students 'learn'. The programmes provided a positive message to those who believe the challenge of teaching is to create conditions and to provide experiences that uncover and build on the strengths of their students.

Schools ought to be a home for growing beautiful minds.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The ideas in your 'blog' seems to challenge the idea of imposed pre -planned curriculums - that the potential for learning lies within each learner.

Bruce said...

Teacher expertise is one thing - predetermined curriculums and teacher intentions are another. Tapping into and extending students interests, and negotiating interesting challenges for students to solve, is what it should be all about. Creating a love of learning, a desire to continue learning, is more important than achievement targets.

Anonymous said...

An imposed curriculum is the problem - a good idea but impossible to make it 'fit' all students. Customizing it will always be a problem - the only answer is a 'personalized' approach. People get good at what they are good at - simple!

Anonymous said...

Traditional schools have destroyed, or scarred, many 'beautiful minds'