Monday, September 20, 2010

Lurking Genius- Untapped Savant Ability and Creativity in You

Using transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS, Australian researcher Dr. Allan Snyder tests his hypothesis that some savant and creativity abilities occur because the left hemisphere suppresses and confines the raw impressions of the right hemisphere. Using TMS to suppress the left anterior temporal lobe, Snyder finds that study subjects become better at drawing horses, better at estimating the number of dots presented on a screen, and better at recognizing word duplications in well known phrases.

"My hypothesis is that savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels. Due to a failure in top-down inhibition, they can tap into information that exists in all of our brains, but is normally beyond conscious awareness."

It's a high tech version of "Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain".

It's an interesting idea - especially given the neurological literature about acquired (i.e. due to stroke or other neurologic disease) savant or high artistic ability and the neurological findings in individuals with autism. Snyder's theory may also have implications for our understanding of twice-exceptional individuals (gifted with LDs), creative dyslexics, gifted children and adults with overexcitabilities / sensory processing, and the co-occurrence of high creativity and mental illness.

Conversations of Creativity - Psychology Today
The genius machine pdf
Explaining and Inducing Savant Skills - Phil Trans Roy Soc


  1. This reminds me of the case of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, and how she described her stroke. In particular, I was struck by her description of how all of the chatter stopped, and a whole new world opened up to her. This also reminds me of references to an "illusion of unity," which I have seen here and there in random mysical and spiritual writings, but which I admit I have never really understood. Perhaps the ego IS an illusion after all, and maybe it comes from the left hemisphere.

  2. This is like Dr. Taylor's experience.

    It is amazing thinking about how the two sides of our brains work together - and whether it's possible to alternate between sides and coordinate to the best of their potentials.

    I for one don't want to sign up for TMS. I don't know what a strong magnet is doing to may neuronal connections. I am happy to hear about results, but I'm not sure that turn on and off different parts with a strong magnetic doesn't have some structural consequences over time.

  3. Hi:

    I ran across this post on Zenpundit's blog – he's a regular reader here – and would like to expand a bit on the comment I made there.

    I'm intrigued by the video you posted, to be sure, but by no means convinced that "savants" represent the peak of human creativity: if anything, I tend to doubt it.

    In a response to an earlier comment here, you agree "This is like Dr. Taylor's experience" – referring to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, whose book My Stroke of Insight and TED talk report Dr. Taylor's explanation of what she learned from suffering and recovering from a major stroke. Dr. Taylor's account so fits many of my own preferences, prejudices, beliefs or intuitions that I would do well to be cautious about the enthusiasm I will allow myself in extrapolating from what she has said or written.

    Having said that, it does seem to me that creative artists and scientists often enter states that somewhat resemble Dr. Taylor's stroke and Dr. Snyder's subject's experience with the magnet – and for that matter, the state of "unknowing" which is the goal of Buddhist Prasangika Madhyamaka philosophy as presented in Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's book, The Power of an Open Question.


    But I believe I'm glimpsing a deeper and richer problem here.

    The problem as I see it is that profound genius is not easily recognized, and minor brilliance often mistaken for it. No scientist, no philosopher, no psychologist, no gallery owner would have thought of Van Gogh as a prominent instance of creative genius while he was alive. Nobody thought of Bach as someone whose masterwork, the B Minor Mass, should undoubtedly be performed -- and it took a century of near oblivion before Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Bach's Matthew Passion outside the city where he wrote it.

    In short, there are people whose genius is recognized while they are very young (Mozart), others who are known only after their deaths (Van Gogh) – and others who lack genius but have some facility or hit some moment of fad or fashion, who are thought in their day to be geniuses, but seen in retrospect as flukes, fakes, or lesser talents.


    If we want to understand genius, I'd suggest we look to works of undoubted genius rather than to figures of reputed genius -- and also consider Gregory Bateson's comment about poetry:

    One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships get mapped onto a level of diversity in us that we don't ordinarily have access to. We bring it out in poetry . We can give to each other in poetry the access to a set of relationships in the other person and in the world that we are not usually conscious of in ourselves. So we need poetry as knowledge about the world and about ourselves, because of this mapping from complexity to complexity.

    There's a structural component here, I'm pretty sure, something more precise than the term "complexity", even with all its Santa Fe specificity, can quite convey.

    I'd suggest that Bateson is saying, in effect, that the arts create "pocket universes" which mimic the universe-at-large. In my view, they do this by replicating the tensions inherent in our own polar view of the world – light and shade, friend and foe, springtime and harvest – in a weave that allows us to navigate complex and difficult terrain within that multidimensional terrain of opposites in "play mode", in simulation if you will... in some variant on that state of "suspended reality" which Gaston Bachelard (and Kekule) would call "reverie".