We Are All Savants
SHIFT: AT THE FRONTIERS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
major technological advances in the 1970s and
Imaging technology, enabled scientists to look
pictures of a subject’s brain activity, the
microscope allowed a more detailed look at
and radioactive tracers enabled neural
to be better defined. Additionally,
techniques helped identify more than 100
messengers in the brain.
hope was that consciousness could be
by studying our gray matter, a belief that
to understanding music by disassembling
a CD player.
contemporary science has come to assume
is generated by the brain. The substrate for our memory is thought to be the complex pattern of networking
among the brain’s 100 billion neurons, each of which has an average
of 50,000 connections with other neurons. During learning we select
and reinforce specific connections and pathways in this network.
among neurons relies upon chemical
and electrical impulses between adjacent
Since neurons in one person’s head can’t send
via chemicals or electrical impulses to neurons
person, the model doesn’t allow for psi.
on the verge of another scientific revolution
scientists can no longer ignore data that are
their paradigm away from the “neurocentric”
How is it that
after 100-plus years of careful research
evidence of parapsychology, it has yet to gain scientific acceptance? We
all have the capacity for psi, and when pressed, many naysayers admit
they have had an experience or two that qualify as psi.
the continued skepticism? A primary reason is
current scientific model for the brain provides
by which these phenomena could occur.
while this model doesn’t explain how consciousness could arise from something
material like the brain, no one questions whether there is consciousness.
I thus suggest that the model, and not psi, is what needs to be questioned.
WHEN THE ONLY TOOL
IS A HAMMER,
SCREWS BECOME NAILS
Science relies upon the scientific method, so when
was no “adequate” method for studying
became a taboo subject for scientific inquiry. The taboo
arose under the influence of John Watson, an American
psychologist who believed that only behavior could
studied scientifically. By the 1920s his “behaviorism”
came to dominate psychology, and as a result, consciousness was not even mentioned
in leading psychology texts between 1930 and 1950.
Consciousness research became respectable when it
was tied to research on the brain. This was assisted
model of consciousness. In fact, the greatest challenge
the current model comes from research on scientifically
accepted phenomena that are raising questions with
An example of such research concerns
“the savant syndrome.”
Savants demonstrate remarkable abilities that are
understood by conventional theories about consciousness
and the functioning of the brain. These skills can
and disappear suddenly and without explanation. Their
skills are all the more remarkable because the savants lack the education and cognitive
abilities normally associated with their talents. Many of these skills involve their amazing
memories, which are so profound that they have difficulty forgetting anything.
Daniel Tammet, a 26-year-old autistic savant, can
seven languages, recall the constant pi to 22,514
places, and figure out cube roots as fast as a calculator.
Kim Peek, the man on whom the movie Rain Man was based,
can read two books simultaneously—one with
each eye— and recite in detail the 7,600 books he has read.
Leslie Lemke is a blind
savant who played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 after he heard it the first time.
Like most musical savants, he never had a piano lesson.
Stephen Wiltshire is an
artistic savant who drew a highly
accurate map of the London
skyline from memory after a
single helicopter trip.
The twins in Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Touchstone, 1998) amused
themselves by calling out six-digit prime numbers
that just appeared in their minds; they also had
calendar-calculating skills that spanned over 8,000 years.
No one has understood how the savants perform their
feats, but an important clue lies in the fact that
the savant syndrome is vastly over-represented in autism. In fact, the savant syndrome
is over 100 times more prevalent in autism than in other forms of mental retardation or mental
illness; almost 10 percent of autistic individuals have some savant skill(s).What is it about autism,
which otherwise severely impairs functioning, that can lead to such seemingly
One approach to answering this question has been
look at the second-by-second activity of brain regions
in autistic subjects, using functional MRI (magnetic
resonance imaging). In two studies, autistic individuals
and IQ-matched controls were given identical memory
and attention tasks.
Both groups performed at equal levels, but they
used different sections of their brains. The controls
activated several areas of their left and right neocortices
in an integrated fashion, whereas the autistic subjects
preferentially activated a small portion of their
neocortex and/or both sides of their visual cortex.
What is the significance of these studies? The current
model of brain functioning had led to the expectation
that individuals with savant skills would have greater
more complex connectivity within their brains’
However, rather than having more connectivity, these
studies show that they have less. In fact, Rainman’s
Kim Peek has no corpus callosum, which is the band
fibers that connects the left and right brains. This
why he is able to read two books simultaneously.
because the left brain inhibits the right brain through
corpus callosum, this finding suggests that savant
might be assisted when the left brain can’t
the right brain.
Other evidence that damage to the neocortex—the
evolutionarily newest region of our brain—assists
abilities comes from another neuropsychiatric disorder:
fronto-temporal dementia (FTD). Musical talents and
artistic gifts have arisen de novo in patients with FTD
who had no interest or talent in the arts prior to
deterioration of their frontal and temporal lobes.
More clues to the savant puzzle were provided by
the high-functioning autistic professor of animal science who coauthored Animals in Translation (Scribner,
2004). The recent neuroimaging findings fit what she tells us about the inner experience of people
with autism. For example, the preferential use of the visual cortex for processing
information that was found in the studies is consistent with Grandin’s description that she
“thinks in pictures.” Her statement that she doesn’t “abstractify”
the way nonautistic people do could be due to the underfunctioning of her neocortex. She states
that when people think abstractly, they see what they expect to
see rather than what actually is.
They form concepts of reality
and respond to those rather than consciously processing all of the details. Animals, for example,
can use the subtle differences between trees to aid in their navigation. Humans
generally just see “trees” and need to physically create their own trail markings in order
not to get lost. The research findings on autism and savants have time or for consciousness
between individuals to be coupled—
in short, a mechanism for telepathic communication.
The existence of free will may also be better understood
by quantum processes. One criticism for the neural
network model of consciousness is that the brain
portrayed as a biological machine. But what runs
machine? And is it possible for a machine to be
conscious? Clearly something directs our thoughts
actions. We call that something “free will.”
But can we
have free will in a machine? Some theorists have
a parallel between free will and what happens before
and after measurement of the quantum wave function.
In other words, before measurement an electron’s
location cannot be specified. Its location has to be represented as a wave of possibilities.
This wave “collapses” after measurement into a discrete location.
Thus, our conscious experience of the world may
constitute the action of free will continually collapsing
the quantum wave function into discrete experiences
from a sea of possibilities.
LIVING IN A NONLOCAL
Our model of savant abilities suggests that our brains
operate at two levels, the quantum and the classical.
These two levels are no more exclusionary than classical (or Newtonian) physics
and quantum mechanics. One major difference between them is that the forces in classical physics
operate locally, whereas forces in
quantum physics operate nonlocally. Both types
of forces operate in our brains, which is why our
brains can process consciousness both locally and
nonlocally. Some people have conditions such
as autism that shift the balance between local and nonlocal processes by knocking out the functioning
neocortex. The rest of us can decrease this classical
dominance by such mind-quieting practices as meditation.
Hence, as we become more consciously aware or awake,
we use nonlocal processes more and more. Along the
way, we will progressively see the world less abstractly. We will see it more as it
Far-reaching implications, suggesting that we
all have the capacity for savant-like abilities that we don’t experience or develop because our neocortex
gets in the way.
THE GHOST IN THE
I’ve been collaborating with Ken Hennacy, a
with expertise on quantum mechanics and artificial
intelligence, to create a new model for understanding
savant abilities. Our model suggests that there are
modes of processing information within the human
The processing we are consciously aware of is what
we call “classical.” It is slow, linear, and capable of handling only a
limited amount of information. It solves problems by using abstract concepts, relies upon neural
network connectivity, and occurs in the neocortex.
“Quantum” processing, by comparison,
is extremely rapid, parallel, and capable of handling exponentially more information than classical
processing, but it usually operates outside of conscious awareness. It takes
place in all brain regions and becomes more evident when classical processing is turned down or
We chose the terms “classical” and “quantum”
reference to different branches of physics. However,
word “quantum” also refers to the quantum
computers that are currently under development. Like the quantum
processing in our brains, these supercomputers will
capitalize on quantum mechanical principles. Their
computational capacities will be exponentially greater
than those of modern computers because the quantum
wave function of their subatomic particles will enable
a vast sea of values to participate in calculations simultaneously, rather
Quantum processing in the brain could explain how
savants perform calculations so rapidly and without
conscious awareness. It could also explain those
that appear to be related to psi. In order to understand
these, one must include a discussion of the quantum
phenomenon known as “entanglement.” Physicists
found that two particles can be entangled, or capable
influencing one another instantaneously while separated
at vast distances. Entanglement provides a means
consciousness to be coupled to other locations in
This may be why he is able
to read two books simultaneously.
MD, is a graduate of
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she also
completed her psychiatric training. A former colleague
of John Mack at Cambridge Hospital
Medical School, she is now clinical director of the John
E. Mack Institute and is completing a book on a new
model for consciousness.