We are all capable of the extraordinary
savant skills displayed by people with autism
according to Professor Allan Snyder, speaking
at the Royal Society today. Snyder argues that
it is our inbuilt expectations of the world that
stop us from using them.
Prof Snyder spoke on the savant syndrome and his
efforts to 'turn on' autistic savant skills in
people who don't have autism at a discussion
meeting jointly organised by the Royal Society
and the British Academy. Snyder is director of
the Centre for the Mind at the University of
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."
During one study conducted by Prof Snyder and
his colleagues participants were asked to perform
a specific task, before, during, immediately after,
and 45 minutes after rTMS treatment, with tasks
including drawing a dog, horse or face from memory
in one minute, or proofreading a document.
The result was a major change in the drawing
ability in four out of the 11 participants, two
of these participants also showed a noticeable
improvement in their ability to recognise duplicated
words in the proofreading task. Their abilities
returned to normal within about an hour.
In a similar study, ten out of twelve participants
had an improved ability after the rTMS treatment
to accurately guess a large number of objects in
one and half seconds, an ability which faded after
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."
1. The Royal Society is an independent academy
promoting the natural and applied sciences.
Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles,
as the UK academy of science, as a learned
Society, and as a funding agency. It responds
to individual demand with selection by merit,
not by field. As we prepare for our 350th anniversary
in 2010, we are working to achieve five strategic
- Invest in future scientific leaders and in
- Influence policymaking with the best scientific
- Invigorate science and mathematics education
- Increase access to the best science internationally
- Inspire an interest in the joy, wonder and excitement
of scientific discovery
2. The Centre for the Mind is part of the University
of Sydney. http://www.centreforthemind.com
3. Professor Allan Snyder received the Marconi
International Prize, in New York City in December 2001.
He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and
the recipient of its 2001 Clifford Paterson Prize.
Allan holds the 150th Anniversary Chair of Science
and the Mind at the University of Sydney. He was
a Guggenheim Fellow at Yale University's School of
Medicine and a Royal Society Research Fellow at
the Physiology Laboratories of Cambridge University.
He is a graduate of Harvard University, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and University College London.
His discussion focussed on published work from
the papers indicated below as well as new work
on reducing false memories and on prejudice.
Snyder, A.W., Mulcahy, E., Taylor, J.L., Mitchell,
D.J., Sachdev, P., & Gandevia, S.C. (2003).
Savant-like skills exposed in normal people by
suppressing the left front-temporal lobe. Journal
of Integrative Neuroscience, 2, 149-158. Snyder,
A., Bahramali, H., Hawker, T., & Mitchell, D.J. (2006).
Savant-like numerosity skills revealed in normal
people by magnetic pulses. Perception, 35, 837-845.
The Royal Society
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