2013 / 10 July

Are You Born “Pre-Loaded?”

I recently found myself watching an episode of the (somewhat tacky) Science Channel series, Ingenious Minds. It featured a man who suffered a traumatic head injury that instantly transformed him into a piano prodigy. The diagnosis assigned to this gentleman, Derek Amato, was “acquired savant syndrome.”

Assuming for a moment that the whole thing isn’t a hoax perpetrated by a talented and mischievous pianist, this case raises profound questions about the nature of human knowledge. It’s commonly accepted that we are born with instinct and nothing more. Most believe that—like clay sculptors—we acquire information and add it to our repository of knowledge, fitting pieces together into something useful through study and practice. Derek Amato’s case, like those of other acquired savants, questions this. Where did his knowledge come from?

Though acquired savantism is poorly understood and exceptionally rare, a few hypotheses exist, some more ridiculous than others. For instance, some posit that individuals like Mr. Amato draw their knowledge from a sort of (to use a Jungian term) collective unconscious. A fun introduction to the idea can be found in Richard Linkletter’s film, Waking Life, when actor Ethan Hawke (cheekily reprising his character from the film, Before Sunrise) talks of a study involving crossword puzzles:

“They did this study where they isolated a group of people over time, and monitored their abilities at crossword puzzles in relation to the general population, and they secretly gave them a day-old crossword, one that had already been answered by thousands of other people, and their scores went up dramatically. Like twenty percent. So it’s like once the answers are out there, people can pick up on them. Like we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.”

Those who buy into the idea of a collective unconscious would claim that, similarly, larger aspects of human knowledge such as language and music are also “out there,” waiting to be accessed. As an annoying skeptic (I prefer the term to “party-pooping asshole”), the idea of a collective unconscious doesn’t exactly fit into my worldview. As far as I’ve been able to tell, it lacks sufficient evidence to be taken seriously. As with anything, however, I’ll keep and open mind should new evidence present itself.

I’m not going to hold my breath.

Over the last few years, acquired savant syndrome has received more scientific attention. Some experts believe that when the left (logical, sequential) hemisphere of the brain is damaged, the right (creative, associative) hemisphere can sometimes pick up the slack. At the risk of oversimplifying the result, the right does the left’s job, but “does it in its own way.” Can this phenomenon (referred to as a “release of dormant potential”) result in sudden and extreme piano skills?

Surprisingly, it seems to be the closest thing to a reasonable explanation yet. Most savants tend to exhibit abilities that fall into a relatively narrow spectrum that includes things like music, calculation, and memory. Some neuroscientists and psychiatrists argue that that these specific types of skills share an intrinsic logical foundation that may be instinctively programmed within us. This so-called “genetic memory” may be innate but muted, and the average person may simply expose it through experience. That is to say, we are more like sculptors of stone than of clay—with study and practice, we chip away at the stone, revealing inherent internal knowledge as time progresses. This theory would argue that both acquired and congenital (i.e., “from birth”) savants simply seem to bypass the “chipping away” part.

Based on this, some scientists are apparently looking into ways to release these abilities without introducing brain trauma. Could future generations bypass years of sacrifice and practice, opting instead to undergo a small “rerouting” procedure that would expose prodigious musical, mathematical, or mnemonic abilities?

Though seemingly more plausible than the collective unconscious theory, this “innate ability” explanation seems incomplete to me. Still, acquired savants are real people who have somehow acquired real skills, and many seem able to reasonably prove that they didn’t have to work for them.

Savantism remains a fascinating (and often tragic) mystery, but it’d be great to be able to take a pill and play piano like Derek Amato. Sure, there’s a certain romance associated with the process of learning, but I think I’d get over it somewhat quickly as I played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 like I’d been slaving away over the keys for years.

I am very curious to see what the coming decades hold.

  • I didn’t think it was tacky Dr. Canning!

  • Alexander Morgan / August 19, 2013 AT 8:30 PM

    The Buddha spoke about something like this, that the whole of human experience exists within the mind. What I took from his idea is that if one was to meditate deeply enough, the innate skills and knowledge within the individual will become apparent. There is knowledge and skills that are practical, like how to ride a bike, and others that are ancient and innate. Perhaps this gives credibility to the collective mind theory, if you trust that the Buddha the world knows speaks the truth. Maybe this piano man was just lucky enough to have experienced the fruition of ancient truths.

  • If memories could be genetically or global-consciously shared then people would naturally be born with full language and skillsets – it would be such a mental advantage that it would surely happen naturally through evolution. It obviously doesn’t happen.

    Linking piano keys to sounds and learning to play them to produce particular sounds isn’t unbelievable and isn’t something most people couldn’t do already or figure out themselves, what’s unusual is if a knock on the head caused these things to fall into place. Bear in mind this guy was homeless and passed through many jobs before this backstory turned him into a celebrated pianist. He has a career out of this ‘savant’ behaviour. You don’t need bhudda or global consciousness or genetic knowledge or elves or pixies to explain a person playing a piano well, all that makes him special is the backstory. What does he have to confirm his story?