Monday, October 27, 2014

Musical Savants are Human, Too

Do musical savants lack emotional and creative ability? According to Robert Jourdain’s Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy,[1] they do. First, let’s understand that savant syndrome was first properly recognized by Dr. J. Langdon Down, (also noted for originating the term Down’s syndrome). In 1887, he coined the term "idiot savant", meaning low intelligence, and from the French, savoir, ‘knowing’ or ‘wise’, to describe someone who had extraordinary memory but with a great defect in reasoning power. Jourdain explains that individuals with savant syndrome have limited areas of substantial or even outstanding cognitive abilities, although they may also exhibit impairments in many domains of functioning. Doctor Darold A. Treffert has extensively studied the savant syndrome and has presented acclaimed overviews that can argue against Jourdain’s understanding.[2] His reported data explains that savant skills include lightning-speed numerical calculation, calendric calculation, perfect pitch, artistic skills, and exceptional musical abilities. Some individuals with savant syndrome possess more than one special skill. Jourdain explains that individuals whose talents are exceptional and well beyond the range of normal functioning are referred to as prodigious savants. Despite the diverse range of skills that have been observed, one consistent feature Jourdain states is the extraordinary memory capacity that could explain all the answers to the functioning of savants. Individuals with savant syndrome are also highly attentive to their specialized ability and will spend significant time and energy practicing their unique talent. An important fact to note is that for unknown reasons, savant syndrome is more commonly observed in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than among the general population. Treffert says it is estimated that 10% of individuals with ASD have some type of special skill or savant characteristic. Conversely, approximately 50% of individuals with savant skills have a concurrent diagnosis of ASD. In both ASD and savant syndrome, males are more typically affected, with males with savant syndrome outnumbering females by a 6:1 ratio.

Investigation of the neurologic basis of savant syndrome is very recent. Although people have long been intrigued by these rare individuals with “super-normal” cognitive powers, the study of brain mechanisms that underlie special skills was long limited to topics like behavioral observations, psychologic testing, analysis of postmortem brains, and case reports of focal neurologic events. Although savant skills are quite diverse in nature, they include activities commonly associated with the right cerebral hemisphere. Jourdain successfully explains that theories to explain the existence of these skills in savant syndrome have included ancestral or inherited memory, utilization of alternate memory circuits, left hemispheric faulty development or damage with right hemispheric compensation, and potential right hemisphere disinhibition.

Jourdain indicates that savants have no concept of inadequacy, of envy, guilt, despair, emotion, or exaltation. He says this reason could be because the emotional centres of the savants’ brains are gutted during development. Research by Dr. Treffert would disagree with this statement. Treffert describes that although musical prodigious savants musically replicate what they heard, they are able to not just play variations, but his case studies show signs of being able to compose music based off of a sequence or melody. Treffert explains that this requires complex emotional brain activity to accomplish.

Let’s take musical savant, Derek Paravicini, for example; a blind severely cognitively impaired man with profound disability.[3] Paravicini was born extremely prematurely, at twenty-five weeks. His blindness was caused by oxygen therapy given during his time in a neonatal intensive care unit. This also affected his developing brain, resulting in his severe learning disability. At the age of nine, Paravicini had his first major public concert at the Barbican Hall in London when he played with the Royal Philharmonic Pops Orchestra. In that year, he appeared on Wogan and was the main subject of a documentary called Musical Savants. In 2006, he recorded his debut CD featuring some original compositions. Derek Paravicini is described as a music savant but does not follow Jourdain’s affirmation that savants do not have concept of inadequacy or emotion. Furthermore, Jourdain stated that with the lack of emotion, musical savants would not perform on Carnegie Hall stage. Some could say that Derek Paravicini’s Barbican Hall appearance is just as significant as if it were at Carnegie Hall.

Jourdain also highlights that language and its production can be challenging for musical savants. This may be true for certain types of music savants, but soprano lyric soprano and accordionist Gloria Lenhoff, a Williams Syndrome musical savant, it is not.[4]  She has repertoire of over two thousand pieces and has performed overseas and throughout the United States. Ms. Lenhoff, who has received acclaim from near and far, can sing in twenty eight foreign languages, in a variety of styles. In the past few years Ms. Lenhoff has been featured on many documentaries and television news specials. She has performed with members of the Los Angeles Opera and the Boston Lyric Opera, and at numerous venues around the world. She is an active advocate for the abilities of the developmentally disabled and frequently appears before community organizations. Her reports say that she displays a sense of strong character when singing on stage. Any singer or performer of speech would know that portraying character illuminates a great discussion about emotion. Gloria possesses emotions and creativity, and is fully capable of being creative with music; something Jourdain hypothesizes musical savants lack.

Although Jourdain reduces musical savants as “...mechanical beings”, research like Dr. Treffert and case studies of Derek and Gloria go against Jourdain’s words. Jourdain chose to belittle prodigious musical savants but Dr. Treffert, Derek and Gloria show that results prove savants can be emotionally and creatively human.

[1] Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. New York: W. Morrow, 1997, 196-201. Print.
[2] Treffert, D. A. (2009). The savant syndrome: An extraordinary condition. A synopsis:
past, present, future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,
364(1522), 1351–1357. Print.

[3] Ockelford, Adam. In the Key of Genius: The Extraordinary Life of Derek Paravicini. London: Arrow, 2008. Print.
[4] Sforza, Teri, and Howard Lenhoff. The Strangest Song: One Father's Quest to Help His Daughter Find Her Voice : The Compelling Story of the Link between a Rare Genetic Disorder and Musical Talent. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2006. Print.

1 comment:

Susan Raponi said...

Wow, your title had me a little on the defensive side. Jourdain's verbiage regarding savantism borders on the offensive at times and underlines the negative perspective that autistic individuals are less than human. Individuals that have been identified with ASD do struggle to connect relationally with others in a way that society may perceive as detached or distant. One of the key aspects of ASD is impairment in social behaviour. But high level ASD individuals do form strong relationships and respond to socio-cognitive therapy where music is often the key to emotive connection. I am so glad you called Jourdain out on his subtle bias in this area. It is important to recognize those with exceptionalities as just as human as the rest of us with different forms of expression and gifts to share.