Are Savants And Prodigies A Glimpse At Early Human Abilities?

Dr. Oliver Sacks was in awe. The twins in he was used to seeing in the assisted care facility were doing something he’d never seen before. One would say a 6 digit number and the other would seemingly “catch” it – meaning he would smile and nod as if savoring what his brother had just said. Then he would say one. Not knowing for sure, but guessing they might be swapping prime numbers, he decided to get a book on large prime numbers so that if it happened again he’d be able to check them. How could it possibly be they were using primes that big when most of us can only rattle off a few?

Finally his chance came. Finding them enjoying their number game he came up and tried to join in. Throwing an 8 digit prime in the mix he waited what seemed like forever. They both turned towards me, then suddenly became still, with a look of intense concentration and perhaps wonder on their faces. There was a long pause – the longest I had ever known them to make, it must have lasted a half-minute or more – and then suddenly, simultaneously, they both broke into smiles.

They had, after some unimaginable internal process of testing, suddenly seen my own eight-digit number as a prime – and this was manifestly a great joy, a double joy, to them: first because I had introduced a new plaything, a prime of an order they had never previously encountered; and secondly, because it was evident that I had seen what they were doing, that I liked it, that I admired it, and that I could join in myself.

They drew apart slightly, making room for me, a new number playmate, a third in their world. Then John, who always took the lead, thought for a very long time – it must have been at least five minutes, though I dared not move, and scarcely breathed – and brought out a nine-figure number; and after a similar time his twin Michael responded with a similar one. And then I, in my turn, after a surreptitious look in my book, added my own rather dishonest contribution, a ten-figure prime I found in my book.

There was again, and for even longer, a wondering, still silence; and then John, after a prodigious internal contemplation brought out a twelve-figure number. I had no way of checking this, and could not respond, because my own book – which as far as I knew, was unique of its kind – did not go beyond ten-figure primes. But Michael was up to it, though it took him five minutes – and an hour later the twins were swapping twenty-figure primes, at least I assume this was so, for I had no way of checking it. Nor was there any easy way, in 1966, unless one had the use of a sophisticated computer. And even then, it would have been difficult, for whether one uses Eratosthenes’ sieve, or any other algorithm, there is no simple method of calculating primes. There is no simple method, for primes of this order – and yet the twins were doing it.”(Sacks 1998)

These twins were incapable of even basic multiplication. They are a classic example of the Savant Syndrome, popularized by the movie Rainman. “Savant Syndrome is a rare, but spectacular, condition in which persons with various developmental disorders, including autistic disorder, have astonishing islands of ability, brilliance or talent that stand in stark, markedly incongruous contrast to overall limitations. The condition can be congenital (genetic or inborn), or can be acquired later in childhood, or even in adults. The extraordinary skills are always linked with prodigious memory of a special type — exceedingly deep but very, very narrow. It occurs in about 10% of people with autism and about .06% of people who are mentally retarded. Unusual abilities can also occur after someone has sustained brain trauma or dementia.”(Treffert)

“A talented savant has unusual abilities that are very conspicuous when viewed against their overall handicap. A prodigious savant is reserved for those very rare persons in this already uncommon condition where the special skill or ability is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a non-handicapped person. There are probably fewer than 50 prodigious savants living worldwide at the present time who would meet this high threshold of special skill.” (Treffert)

In addition to savants there are prodigies. Everyone has heard of those kids who read newspapers at 18 months and graduate from college at 13 but what is the difference? “Savants, by definition, have their special skill or skills in spite of some basic mental disability, generally with low IQ scores overall, while prodigies are persons also with special skills or abilities but without such mental disabilities who generally function at a normal or very high level overall and whose IQ scores generally reflect that level of function. A German Prodigy, Rudiger Gamm, can calculate 9th powers and 5th roots with great accuracy, and he can find the quotient of 2 primes to 60 decimal places.”(Treffert)

As rare as savants and prodigies are they raise intriguing questions. What is the mind truly capable of? Are all minds capable of these amazing feats but these abilities are “turned off in the rest of us? Do these abilities give us a glimpse into our richly endowed origins? Perhaps even most Christians have failed to ponder what it would mean to be created in the “image of God.” Our intelligence would have been matched only by our beauty, strength and height. And now, after six thousand years of mental and physical deterioration, we are a pale reflection of who we were intended to be.

Savant abilities consistently fall under these categories: “music, art, lightning calculating or other mathematical skills, calendar calculating and mechanical/spatial skills. Mechanical ability may include constructing or repairing intricate machines or motors. Spatial skills such as intricate map and route memorizing, or being able to compute distances with precise accuracy just from visualization, do occur, but are seen somewhat less frequently.” They may also have perfect awareness of time.(Treffert)

Ellen, a blind savant, has incredible musical abilities. She can replicate, uncannily, every voice, instrument and studio sound effect she hears. She also has superior spatial sense. From the very beginning she was aware of large objects, wall, fences and buildings from a distance of 6 feet or more and insisted on going to them and touching them. Her father noted that from those early years on she has been able to walk in thick, strange forests without running into trees. As Ellen learned to navigate she made a constant little chirping sound, like her own form of personal radar.”

A really interesting ability of Ellen is to mark the passing of time with perfect accuracy without the use of a clock. “At precisely the moment her favorite news program begins she will bound into the room from wherever she is, flip on the TV and the announcer will start the program, as if on clue from Ellen.”(Treffert)

Alonzo can see a fleeting image on a television screen of any animal, and in less than 20 minutes sculpt a perfect replica of that animal in three-dimensional accuracy. The wax animal is correct in each and every detail – every fiber and muscle. Though unable to tie his shoes or feed himself as a child, he could reproduce things perfectly.” “Savants can store information in their memories just as normal individuals do. But unlike most people, they can easily retrieve phenomenal amounts of information in a very narrow range.”(Treffert)

“At age 16-20 months Kim was able to memorize every book that was read to him. His parents moved Kim’s finger along each sentence being read. Kim would memorize a book after a single reading and having read that particular book he would put it aside, upside down, so that no one would attempt to read it to him again. At age three Kim asked his parents what the word “confidential” meant. He was kiddingly told to look it up in the dictionary and he did just that. He somehow knew how to use the alphabetical order to locate the word and then proceeded to read, phonetically, the word’s definition (Since that time Kim has read, and can recall, some 7600 books).”(Treffert)

Is there a little Rainman in all of us?

“Since suffering a stoke in 2001, former builder Tommy McHugh has felt an insatiable need to create, from painting and drawing to writing and sculpting. He now spends most of his day painting and sculpting and feels utterly unable to stop.”(Pollak and Lythgoe 2004) Formerly uninterested in anything artistic Tom represents the idea that not only do our brains remain full of mysteries but that there are parts of our brains that are not being tapped into.

Although it is not known for sure what the mechanisms are that trigger these abilities in savants, prodigies, people with brain trauma or dementia, the fact still remains that the capabilities are there. The question is why. We know the brain stores every smell, sight, sound, memory but that we can’t normally access it. What does this all mean? The seeds of greatness are still within all of us but not because we are becoming gods but because we were created by One.

Pollak, T. and M. Lythgoe. (2004, 24 June 2004). “Stroke Unlocks Creative Powers.” Retrieved 8 Feb 2005, 2005, from

Sacks, O. (1998). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. New York, Touchstone.

Treffert, D. “Ellen: “With a song in her heart”.” Retrieved 8 Feb, 2005, from

Treffert, D. “Genius Among Us: Alonzo Clemons.” Retrieved 8 Feb, 2005, from

Treffert, D. “Kim Peek-The Real Rain Man.” Retrieved 8 Feb, 2005, from

Treffert, D. “Savant Syndrome: Frequently Asked Questions.” Retrieved 8 Feb 2005, 2005, from

Treffert, D. “Savant Syndrome: What’s New?” Retrieved 8 Feb, 2005, from

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