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Mystery of the Savant Brain

  • Posted 10.24.12
  • NOVA scienceNOW

George Widener has been a calendar-calculating savant since childhood, but other savants seem to acquire extraordinary gifts spontaneously, typically following a brain injury. David Pogue meets with savants and the scientists studying them in an effort to unlock one of the biggest mysteries in neuroscience.

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Launch Video Running Time: 11:16

Transcript

How Smart Can We Get?

PBS Airdate: October 24, 2012

DAVID POGUE: Every brain is unique, but few are as extraordinary as George Widener's. What I experience walking down a city street is completely different from what George experiences.

Twenty-four-hour active driveway?

GEORGE WIDENER: I don't like that one.

DAVID POGUE: George is on the hunt for numbers. When he finds ones he likes, he plays the most amazing game.

GEORGE WIDENER: The 515527, if you took out May 1st, the year 5527.

DAVID POGUE: George has transformed this random number into a calendar date.

GEORGE WIDENER: So,…

DAVID POGUE: Wait, wait, 5527, like, the super future?

GEORGE WIDENER: Yes, yes, a long time from now.

DAVID POGUE: What he does next is absolutely amazing.

GEORGE WIDENER: And that is a, um, that's a Sunday.

DAVID POGUE: Come on!

You can actually find a calendar from the year 5527 on the internet, and you'll see that he's right.

George is what's known as a calendar calculator. Give him a date, and he'll tell you what day of the week it falls on.

DAVID POGUE: All right, so, March 9, 1871: what day of the week is that?

GEORGE WIDENER: Looks like a Thursday.

DAVID POGUE: Holy cow! It was indeed a Thursday.

What day will Christmas fall on in the year 2366?

GEORGE WIDENER: 2366, December 25? That's a, let's see now, Sunday.

DAVID POGUE: Come on, that's nuts! You're right.

How does he do it? How does the brain accomplish such extraordinary feats?

When I try to calendar calculate, here's what happens. George gives me a date: February 20th, 2002.

So you do your thing and I'll do mine, and we'll see who gets there first. On your mark get set, go.

Okay, so…

I try to figure it out based on instructions I found on the internet.

Is this year a leap year?

GEORGE WIDENER: (Whispering to camera) Wednesday.

DAVID POGUE: First, I calculate the total number of days between now and the date.

I'm getting 3,741 days.

Divide that by seven. If the remainder is zero, it will be the same day of the week as today. If the remainder is one, it will be one day earlier.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. So, I'm going to say February 20, 2002, was a Thursday.

GEORGE WIDENER: Hmm, that's interesting how it shifts. It's a Wednesday actually.

DAVID POGUE: Oops. It shifted because I forgot to account for a leap year!

Hold on. Wednesday, now I'm getting Wednesday, just like you.

GEORGE WIDENER: Could you tell me how you did that again?

DAVID POGUE: Uh, no.

GEORGE WIDENER: Okay.

DAVID POGUE: How does George do it? He says he's not doing any math. Instead, he sees numbers line up to form a calendar. He finds the date, and sees the day of the week.

Today George uses his calendar calculating to create fascinating paintings. Each one is filled with numbers and calendar dates. He's an accomplished artist, but that wasn't always the case. When he was a child, teachers couldn't figure out what was wrong with him.

GEORGE WIDENER: I was labeled both gifted and learning disabled.

DAVID POGUE: So he withdrew into himself, finding comfort in calendar dates, and they became an obsession that disconnected him from the world. It took years for George to find out why. Finally he was diagnosed with a rare condition called "savant syndrome."

GEORGE WIDENER: I am a calendar savant, a high-functioning calendar savant.

DAVID POGUE: Psychiatrist Darold Treffert, a prominent expert on savant syndrome, has documented about 300 cases of people like George, who were born with extraordinary skills. In the process, he's also found around 30 truly bizarre cases, where people were transformed into savants, seemingly overnight.

DAROLD TREFFERT (Wisconsin Medical Society): These are people who have an injury or a disease, and, all of a sudden, some ability cascades forth, which was never there before.

DAVID POGUE: He calls them "acquired" savants, and they represent some of the most mysterious cases in the field of brain science.

One of them is Derek Amato. He became a pianist after a severe head injury.

So, let me get this straight. You dived into a swimming pool and hit your head on the bottom. You came to a week later, and what?

Derek started to suffer from headaches and memory loss that still plague him today. But then, something unexpected happened. Barely a week after the accident, he was hit with an uncontrollable need to play the piano. He sat for hours playing this melody over and over again.

DEREK AMATO (Acquired Savant): And that's what it was.

DAVID POGUE: And you weren't a piano player?

DEREK AMATO: No.

DAVID POGUE: So, what I'd love to know is how you picture and think about music, because when I learn a piece of music, I generally look at the sheet music, and, you know, each note is on a line or a space, and it represents one of the keys on the piano, and I, I learn it that…until I can (plays piano). So that's all written out by the composer, specifically.

DEREK AMATO: That would take me a year to learn, maybe five.

DAVID POGUE: Wow, so do you, do you read sheet music?

DEREK AMATO: No, I see blocks. I see these black and white squares, non-stop.

DAVID POGUE: These blocks tell his fingers how to play that melody.

Some…something kind of miraculous happened to your brain when it hit the bottom of the pool.

DEREK AMATO: Right.

DAVID POGUE: But what? Why do people like Derek develop savant-like abilities after a head injury? And why are some people, like George Widener, the calendar calculator, born with them?

Technician: So, if you can just follow me into the room.

GEORGE WIDENER: All right.

DAVID POGUE: Clues to solving this mystery may be hidden in George's brain. For the last few years, neuroradiologist Joy Hirsch has been studying it with an M.R.I. scanner.

JOY HIRSCH: What we're seeing is the structural pictures of his brain.

DAVID POGUE: It looks, to a layman, just like a normal brain.

JOY HIRSCH: Well it looks, to a scientist and a neuroradiologist like a normal brain, as well.

DAVID POGUE: Today, Hirsch is probing further. She is taking f.M.R.I. scans of George's brain. This scan detects increased blood flow in the areas of his brain that are at work.

And this is George's brain when he's calendar calculating.

JOY HIRSCH: What we're seeing here are two slices of George's brain. So here, on George, we…the…this slice here…

DAVID POGUE: Stand still, George.

JOY HIRSCH: So this slice, here, comes right across, just about the top of his ears. And this slice, here, comes right across the top of his head.

DAVID POGUE: Got you.

JOY HIRSCH: And what's really interesting about this is that most of the activity, as you can see by the concentration of the yellow blobs, is on one side of the brain. And that's actually the left side of the brain.

DAVID POGUE: What does that tell you? What reaction do you have? Are you like, "Oh, my gosh!" Or are you like, "Ah-ha, just as I theorized." I mean what…

JOY HIRSCH: Well, this was a complete surprise, because typical brains, in any task, are much more symmetrical.

DAVID POGUE: This is the f.M.R.I. of a typical brain at work.

Both the left and right hemispheres show activation, but when George is calendar-calculating that doesn't happen.

JOY HIRSCH: The activity pattern on the right side of the brain is very sparse, in a way that might suggest some kind of shutting down of one side of the brain. So this is quite extraordinary.

It is as if the tools of the brain that he needs to do that task become highly focused. That is, he uses very specific areas of the brain and doesn't use others.

JOHN GOLFINOS: For a savant to have only one side working, well, to me, I would interpret that as saying the other side is shut off or isolated, and this side is using all the available processing power of the brain, but only on one or two tasks, instead of the hundreds or thousands of tasks that the whole brain normally handles at one time. All that processing power is going into one little thing, calendar calculating.

DAVID POGUE: But how about people who suddenly develop savant-like abilities later in life, like Anne Adams, an extraordinary case of a scientist turned painter.

Over several years, while Anne was stricken with a rare brain disorder that slowly diminished her ability to speak, she simultaneously developed an obsessive need to paint, a need to make art, that took over her life. She produced hundreds of paintings.

Brain scans, taken over several years, give us a rare glimpse at what was happening in Anne's brain. In areas associated with speech, nerve cells were dying off. These areas are highlighted in blue.

But in the areas highlighted in orange, something very different appears to be happening.

BRUCE MILLER (University of California, San Francisco, Memory and Aging Center): The right posterior part of the brain, the part that's involved, we think, with the production of art, is starting to remodel and rebuild. This loss of function in her language circuit accelerated the growth in her visual circuitry.

I think the brain compensates for the loss. This is exactly what happens. As you lose one circuit, another circuit is turned on more of the time. It compensates and it develops new skills that allow us to cope.

DAVID POGUE: I showed Joy Hirsch Anne Adam's scans to see what she had to say.

JOY HIRSCH: So, it's a very interesting case, where the balance of the brain was altered, and during the course of this alteration, the other side of the brain appears to have compensated, with the emergence of new talents, almost savant-like.

DAVID POGUE: Wow.

These functional brain scans are helping us decode the mystery of savants like George and may help us understand how people like Anne Adams and Derek Amato can suddenly acquire remarkable talents.

Thank you, man, beautifully done.

How much abuse
can a human brain take
and still work?
Some brains have survived…
Bullets
Knives
Nails!
And then there's Phineas Gage…
In 1848, an explosion
sent a 3 ½ foot iron bar
through his brain.
It flew past his language and motor centers,
but destroyed connections
to parts of the brain
controlling social behavior.
Not only did Phineas survive,
But he went on tour as
A medical celebrity.
He took his iron rod with him.

Credits

How Smart Can We Get?

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William Seeley, Unravelling Bolero, Brain 2008 Vol. 131 1 39-49, by permission of Oxford University Press
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-------------------------------------------------

The images of Einstein's brain are published in Falk, Lepore & Noe: 2012, The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs, Brain (doi #doi:10.1093/brain/aws295) and are reproduced here with permission from the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, MD.

-------------------------------------------------

SPECIAL THANKS
Alex Adams
Robert Adams
Craig Andrews
Rob Berlin
Elmhurst Hospital Center
Joy Faber and Con Edison
John Giambrone
Dolores Gonzalez
Scott Kaufman
Roi Cohen Kadosh
Vitali Khomitch
Henry Landau
Robert Landau
Gary Lennox
Junior Lopez
Stephanie Magdziak
Mind Research Network
Thomas Murray
NYU Langone Medical Center
Jason Padgett
Robert Plomin
Ricco/Maresca Gallery
Jon Sarkin
Melissa Sy
Sharon K. Tison
Eleanor Weber
Michael Weisand
Dolores Williams
Ron Yeo
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Dario Maestripieri
John Phillips
Nicole Power
Jennifer Rhind
University of Chicago
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The Lancet
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NOVA scienceNOW is a trademark of the WGBH Educational Foundation

NOVA scienceNOW is produced for WGBH/Boston

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0917517. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

© 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Image

(David Pogue and George Widener)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Participants

Derek Amato
Acquired Savant
John Golfinos
NYU Langone Medical Center
Joy Hirsch
Columbia University Medical Center www.neuroscience.columbia.edu/index.php?page=28&bio=88
Bruce Miller
UCSF Memory and Aging Center
Darold Treffert
Wisconsin Medical Society
George Widener
Calendar Savant

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