Read an Excerpt
Paradox can be a threshold to truth.
Within that class of people called idiots there is a sub-group that usedto be called idiot-geniuses, now called idio-savants, savant beingFrench for "learned-one." Both terms are paradoxical since these people have an average I.Q. of 25. They are generally incapable of learning anything; few can read or write. Yet each has apparently unlimited access to a particular field of knowledge that we know they cannot have acquired. The identical twins, George and Charles, for instance, are "calendrical-savants." Ask them on which date Easter will fall ten thousand years hence and immediately the answer comes, with all pertinent calendrical information such as the time of the tides and soon. Easter depends on both solar and lunar cycles and is a most difficult calculation, but George and Charles do not calculate, they simply respond to stimuli given, if that stimuli is resonant with their narrow spectrum of ability. Ask them for the date of some event before 1752, the year in which Europe shifted from Gregorian to Julian calendar systems, and their answers automatically accommodate to the appropriate system. They can range some 40,000 years in the past or future to tell you the day of the week of any date you choose. If you give them your birth date, they can state the Thursdays on which your birthdate might fall. In their spare time the brothers swap twenty-digit prime numbers, showing a parallel capacity not always found in savants. They can't add the simplest figures, however, nor can they understandwhat the word formula means. Ask them how they knew to accommodate to the change of calendrical systems in 1752 and they will be confused, since such an abstract question is beyond them as is such a term as calendrical system.
The twins, quite incapable of fending for themselves, have been institutionalized since age seven. Most savants are institutionalized, illiterate, uneducable, and male. (Eighty percent of all idiots are male, savant or not, which is not entirely beside the point though a separate issue.) During World War II the British employed two mathematical savants who served essentially as computers. They were, so far as is known, infallible. One mathematical savant was shown a checkerboard with a grain of rice on the first of its sixty-four squares and asked how many grains there would be on the final square were they doubled at each one. The answer took the savant forty-five seconds to deliver since that answer is a number greater than our estimate of the atoms in the sun. My mathematical friends tell me the answer is 1.8447 X 1019, or 18,447,000,000,000,000,000. (The zeroes here represent place figures only in this quintillion number, since my friends did not have computers powerful enough to run the complete sequence.) Ask these savants how they get their answer and they will smile, pleased that we are impressed but unable to grasp the implications of such a question.
A musical savant, placed at an instrument with a sheet of music before him, will rattle off the music at top speed. Unless you turn the page for him, however, he will repeat the page over and over, unaware of the discrepancy. If you listen to this rapid playing you will find it lifeless and mechanical. On the other hand, a well-known blind musical savant can repeat, on the piano, a complex piece heard only once, in a perfect mirroring, including every emotional nuance of expression.
Savants are untrained and untrainable. The ones sight-reading music can't read anything else, yet display this flawless sensory-motor response to musical symbols. Missing are the essential inputs from emotion or any of the higher intelligences.
Savants have a multitude of capacities as a group, though seldom has a single savant more than one such ability. A savant whose specialty was automobiles was brought to Columbia University Medical Center in New York City for observation. He was asked to look out at the busy street below and then describe from memory the automobiles he saw. He could describe them all, in orderly fashion, by make, model number and year, including the latest items just hot off the press in Detroit or Tokyo. He is, of course, illiterate and uneducable.
Recently an excellent study of savants was published by a medical doctor, Darold Treffert, in his book, Extraordinary People. His observations, made over many years, give us a large cross-sampling of this group. When all is said and done, however, savants remain an enigma. The answers come through them but they are not aware of how they don't know how they know.
I once met a youngster labeled autistic who was fascinated with water heaters. He knew a remarkable amount about them, various brands, models, types and asked everyone he saw about their water heaters. He was uneducable and illiterate but was hardly an idiot. His questions were sharp, to the point, and he volunteered voluminous information about your water heater if you gave him the make or type.
Darold Treffert describes a savant with a conversational vocabulary of fifty-eight words, who can, if asked, give the population of every city and town in the United States that has a population over 5,000 (or any number); the names, number of rooms, and locations of two thousand leading hotels in America; the distance from any city or town to the largest city in its state; statistics concerning three thousand mountains and rivers; and the dates and essential facts of over two thousand leading inventions and discoveries. We might call this one a geographical savant.