Explaining and inducing savant skills: privileged
access to lower level, less-processed information
Allan Snyder (2006)
I argue that savant skills are latent in us all. My hypothesis is that savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels. Owing 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. This suggests why savant skills might arise spontaneously in otherwise normal people, and why such skills might be artificially induced by low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. It also suggests why autistic savants are atypically literal with a tendency to concentrate more on the parts than on the whole and why this offers advantages for particular classes of problem solving, such as those that necessitate breaking cognitive mindsets. A strategy of building from the parts to the whole could form the basis for the so-called autistic genius. Unlike the healthy mind, which has inbuilt expectations of the world (internal order), the autistic mind must simplify the world by adopting strict routines (external order).
This abstract of Allan Snyder’s research paper proposes that savant skills can be induced in the neurotypical population. In his paper, Snyder first proposes that savant skills may be latent in every individual and even includes absolute pitch and synaesthesia in the list of possible latent qualities. Then, he deals with the issue of inhibition, stating that savant syndrome is a failure of top-down inhibition. He admits that due to lack of supplemental research, the exact neuranatomical mechanisms for savant skills are unknown, but he states that these mechanisms "may be associated with an atypical hemispheric imbalance wherein concept networks are bypassed or inhibited" (page 1399).
Snyder out rightly states that savant cognitive strategies lend themselves to certain types of problem solving because they are less biased in nature. Savants process information in a part-to-whole sequence. However, this information is acquired in an implicit manner, and savant individuals can rarely give insight into the manner in which their skills were obtained. Snyder also claims that the theory of the latent nature of savant skills in everyone is further supported by the fact that in many instances, savant skill emerges spontaneously as opposed to having developed over a period of time. He also postulates that some individuals may develop savant skills in the face of neural damage, as in some instances of frontotemporal dementia.
Snyder discusses the issue of competing hemispheres in considerable detail, stating that the issue of inhibition or disinhibition in some areas of the brain may be important conditions for inducing savant behaviour. He discusses his experimental research using low frequency rTMS (magnetic pulses) to inhibit the LATL (lower anterior temporal lobe) in an attempt to induce savant tendencies in neurotypical individuals. This experiment yielded savant-like results in the areas of drawing, proofreading skills, numerosity, reducing false memories.
Snyder’s experiments led him to the conclusion that areas responsible for concept or Gestalt processing could inhibit neural areas concerned with processing detail and he describes this type of detail processing as being "uncontaminated by learned algorithms" (p 1403). He admits that his theory of privileged access is still in the experimental stage and that supplementary research is needed.
I was highly intrigued when I read this article, considering that the reason I started research on savant behaviour was to study its implications for music education. Snyder does not elaborate on the details of the rTMS process, but to a layman such as myself, the idea of someone artificially inhibiting a part of my brain is a little frightening! We have to ask ourselves if the process of investigating induced savant skill is worthwhile, and I think it is because if the research shows this process to be effective, we will have new and useful neurological insight into the cognitive processes of learning, especially when it comes to the considerably large population of individuals with atypical neural anatomy, functions and processes.