At our lab in St. Louis we are working with several people with superhuman abilities, also known as “savant skills.” My research assistant Kristian Marlow and I are also currently finishing a book entitled The Superhuman Mind (under contract with an agency, see updates here). We are blogging about these cases almost daily over at Psychology Today. The following are four brief stories about some of the individuals we are working with.
#1. Beethoven with a little bit of brain damage
On October 27, 2006, Derek Amato had gotten together with friends for a pool party. While playing football around the pool, Derek jumped high over the water to catch the ball. He crashed headfirst into the hard bottom of the pool’s shallow end. When he came out of the water, he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. He was diagnosed with a concussion and sent home to rest.
Derek slept the following five days. When he finally awakened, he went directly to his best friend Rick’s house. Though he had never played the piano, he felt drawn to a piano he knew was upstairs. It was an irresistible urge. He had to go there and he had to sit down and play. “It was not like someone playing Mary had a Little Lamb,” Derek told us with unexpected insouciance. “It was like Beethoven snuck into my bloodline. All of a sudden someone turned on a switch. I played a classically structured piece. I kept going for six hours.” When Derek finally turned around and looked at Rick, the friend was moved to tears.
After telling a few of his buddies, one of them was able to get through to people in the Los Angeles music biz. Though they were rather skeptical, they decided to fly him out and put him on stage. The audience was blown away. The organizers were dumbfounded. The guy really could play. He wasn’t making it up. This was Derek’s first flirt with stardom. On his return to his hometown in Denver, Colorado, however, he withdrew from the world. “I was trying to understand what my mind was doing. I was trying to get a grip on these changes that really kind of designed a whole new person.” The drastic encounter with the pool floor had left Derek with an acquired form of savant syndrome, a condition that enables the afflicted to perform acts so seemingly difficult that they appear impossible.
The misadventure also left its footprint on Derek in the form of acquired synesthesia. This is a condition in which an input through one sensory or cognitive stream yields outputs that are unusual for that modality or cognitive stream. For example, grapheme-color synesthetes see letters or numbers printed in black or in their thoughts as colored. After his pool injury Derek started seeing black and white squares flowing from left to right, a continuous stream of musical notation. “It’s like a ticker tape rolling around my brain,” Derek explains. It’s the endless flood of black and white squares that drives Derek’s compulsory movement of fingers and urge to get relief through playing. His hands interpret the squares one at a time. Each square is a musical note corresponding to a finger position on the piano.
After landing a music contract with New Vizion Entertainment Group and getting more and more offers to play on stage and film for various television programs, Derek quit his corporate job as a national corporate trainer for an affiliate company of T-mobile. Now his job is basically to meet-and-greet, sign photos, take pictures and perform. He’s been featured on television shows such as News on Fox, the Today Show, the Jeff Probst Show and the hit series Sons of Anarchy. He regularly travels around the country to perform at various sold-out venues and has even been called to share his musical talent in countries as far away as China. One of his proudest moments was when he won the 2007 Independent Artist of the Year award from the Association of Independent Artists. The award led to an opportunity for Derek to compose a song for a Japanese film, which resulted in his single “Fly With Me.” Derek has since then released his first album in 2009 and is working on his second, soon to be released.
#2. A vicious attack turns a dropout into a genius
On Friday September 13, 2002, 32-year old Jason Padgett got severely beaten by two bar ruffians. After a quick visit at the local hospital in Tacoma he was diagnosed with internal bleeding and a concussion and sent home to rest.
Jason barely made it home before he realized that something was unusual. Reality was fragmented. The contours of things were cut into teensy pieces. When he moved or watched an object reposition, complex patterns would form. The light bouncing off of a car’s window or its shiny paint would explode into an array of triangles. To his dismay, Jason’s visions didn’t go away. Frightened, he locked himself inside his apartment and stayed there for three years. He would leave only if his reservoir of canned beans was running low.
In 2005 Jason thought he would capture what he saw when he looked at light bouncing off of a car window by drawing it. He grabbed a pencil and created a staggering image using only straight lines.
Drawing helped Jason deal with the new world that was staring him right in his face. Though he couldn’t think about anything but mathematical patterns all day long, he eventually returned to his job as a furniture store sales person. He had barely gotten to his desk on the first day before deciding to decorate the white walls with his colorful drawings. Customers were curious about the peculiar but fascinating artwork on the walls. “Who made them?” They were asking. “I did,” the skinny, autodidact artist said with a smile. “They are hand-drawn. If you look at them close up, you can see it for yourself.” People were shocked. The dorky guy in the furniture store could draw? They would never have guessed. Soon enough, most locals in town were talking about the eccentric guy in the furniture store who was drawing curiously complex images by hand and saying obscure things about them.
As time went by Jason realized that while his drawings captivated people’s attention, most had no idea what he was saying about them. He might as well have spoken volapyk. A mathematician told him that if he wanted to make himself understood, he had to learn to speak the language of mathematics. Jason was eager to return to school and signed up for a trigonometry class and a couple of calculus classes at a local community college. This was a completely new experience for him. Prior to having his head molested, his only interests had been “to get drunk and get laid.”
Last time he had been to school, he hated it. He cheated on his geometry high school exam. He dropped out of college. Now he couldn’t get enough. He sucked it all up with enthusiasm. He wished he could go to school full time but the money was tight. He would have to work many more hours in the furniture store to cover tuition and fees full time. That just wasn’t possible. However, he attended school on a part-time basis and continued drawing complex mathematical figures. Eventually he started submitting his drawings and won recognition in 2010 as Best International Newcomer in the Art Basel Miami Beach Competition.
After learning the basics of mathematics Jason found himself understanding mathematics in terms of the images he was continuously seeing in response to moving objects in the external world. Over time he automatically formed images in his mind’s eye in response to particular mathematical formulas. In a brain-imaging study we found evidence suggesting that the colorful and geometrically complex images are generated by the action pathway in the brain’s parietal cortex on the left side of Jason’s head.
#3. A deaf child develops a sixth sense
For the first five years of his life, doctors thought that Lidell Simpson was mentally retarded. Luckily, Lidell’s parents didn’t trust them. They didn’t send him to the nuthouse. Instead they had him fitted for a hearing aid that would blast sounds into Lidell’s tiny ears. Together with lip reading and years of speech therapy the faint sounds Lidell could hear from the sound blaster made it possible for him to learn to speak. As it turned out, Lidell was not a "retard," he was super smart. In college he developed an interest in computer programming and made his way to work for many of the top IT firms. Lidell later became acquainted with respected researchers in neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology, who regularly call on his experiences to contribute to research.
Lidell is not only intellectually gifted; like Jason Padgett and Derek Amato, he has what may appear to be superhuman abilities. He can detect features of sounds he cannot consciously hear by drawing them. This is also known as “deaf hearing.”
Lidell has other extraordinary abilities. He reports hearing a unique "ping sound" corresponding to every face he recognizes. We all recognize faces in our own idiosyncratic fashion. When looking at facial features, we pay attention to different characteristics. One of us may focus more at the beard, another at the mole on the nose, yet another on the dimples on the cheeks. None of us sees exactly the same face. Normally there are certain cues that enable us to recognize other people even when they shave off the beard or have aged years by the time we see them again.
However, Lidell suffers from face blindness, also known as prosopagnosia. He cannot recognize faces using sight as the main source of recognition. Lidell’s “pings” counteract his face blindness. When people he knows enter the periphery of his visual field, he hears it internally as a “ping.” He tells us that one time when he was in the lobby of the Museum of Natural History in London, he suddenly heard a “ping.” It came from the other side of the room. As he walked across the room, he realized it came from a friend sitting with his head pointed downward reading the museum guide.
Without his “pings” Lidell cannot recognize people. Lidell recalls that synesthete Pat Duffy once stepped out of the elevator at a conference and greeted him by name. He knew her well, that was clear from the context, but it was not clear to him who she was. He was waiting for a “ping,” but nothing. He just stood there with a blank stare while she was talking. After several seconds it came. “Ping!” “Pat!”
What could be the mechanism underlying Lidell’s enhanced peripheral vision, his “sixth sense”? Well, we know that the brain is excellent at accommodating changes and losses. This phenomenon is also known as “neuroplasticity.” If the brain loses capacities, it can adjust itself to the loss by rewiring other brain regions.
Early-deaf individuals sometimes undergo brain rewiring. Some early-deaf individuals, like Lidell, apparently develop extraordinary abilities to locate objects in space and to detect motion. Stephen G. Lomber, an associate professor at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, and colleagues, recently investigated the auditory cortex of congenitally deaf cats. They found that ia region of auditory cortex normally involved in locating sounds in the periphery of the visual field -- the FAES -- rewired itself to respond to peripheral visual stimulation. Though the neural input was different after reorganization, the neural output remained the same. So reorganization of the FAES apparently can substitute for hearing loss without any reorganization of the area’s neural output.
Lomber’s study may help explain Lidell’s enhanced peripheral vision. Since he was born profoundly deaf, the neurons in the FAES did not receive any significant sound input. So over time they may have become progressively more sensitive to visual stimuli. At some point they likely became hypersensitive to peripheral stimuli, giving Lidell the ability to rapidly detect a face in a crowd.
There is thus also another way in which Lidell is akin to people like Jason Padgett and Derek Amato. Lidell’s remarkable ability to scan a room while casually passing by it and then determine with certainty that a familiar face is located in the crowd is very much akin to is a savant skill. Like reported savant skills, this superhuman skill is highly developed and the task may initially seem impossible to complete.
But there is an important way in which Lidell’s case is unlike those of Jason and Derek. Jason and Derek woke up to superpowers and immediately started experiencing the world in a new way -- a way they found could be expressed artistically. Lidell had to work hard and develop new ways of doing what most of us take for granted.
#4. A blind child teaches himself to navigate via human echolocation
Daniel Kish was born with bilateral retinoblastomas, tiny tumors sitting on the retina. As this type of cancer spreads rapidly, aggressive treatment is necessary to prevent metastasis. Some patients have the retina surgically removed. Others receive laser treatments followed by chemotherapy. This latter treatment destroys the retina along with the cancer. Daniel lost his first eye at seven months and the other at thirteen months. He has no memory of having eyesight.
Daniel nonetheless navigates through crowded streets on his bicycle, camps out far in the wilderness, swims along beaches, dances all night long in crowded nightclubs and engages in many other activities that seem impossible for a person who can’t see.
How does he do it? The answer is echolocation. Using a technique similar to bats and dolphins, human echolocators navigate on the basis of audio cues from reflective surfaces in the environment. Seemingly impossible, echolocation comes quite naturally to people, like Daniel, who are deprived of visual information. Daniel makes clicking noises with his tongue to explore the environment.
“I don’t remember learning this. My earliest memories were of detecting things and noting what they might have reminded me of and then going to investigate,” he says. His earliest vivid memory is of him standing by a chain link fence in his backyard. He was very young, maybe two and a half. Around midnight he climbed out of the window in his bedroom. He went over to the fence and clicked over it with his tongue, hearing things on the other side. He easily made it to the other side and started exploring by clicking around. That night he climbed multiple fences.
Research confirms that echolocation may be a potential perceptual ability of all of us, both sighted and blind. American psychologist Winthrop Niles Kellogg, who is best known for a controversial experiment in which he raised a baby chimpanzee alongside his own infant son, began his human-echolocation research program around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kellogg has shown that blind and blindfolded sighted human subjects can learn to detect objects in the environment through echolocation. At least one study indicates that with some training, both blind and sighted individuals are capable of determining properties, such as distance, size, shape, substance, and relative motion, using echolocation.
While sighted individuals appear to have some ability to echolocate, blind echolocators operate differently when collecting sense data. Unlike sighted subjects, the blinds move their head in different directions when spatially mapping an environment.
There is evidence to suggest that echolocators might have visual experiences grounded in the processing of echoes. Echolocators process sound information using the visual cortex, the part of the brain that sighted people use to process visual information. Furthermore, the saccadic eye movements of echolocators are analogous to the saccades sighted people use to interact visually with their surroundings.
Subjective testimony indicates that humans aren’t able to use echolocation to consciously perceive things less than two meters away. But a 1962 study by Winthrop Kellogg at Florida State University showed that blind people are able to detect obstacles at much shorter distances: 30 to 120 centimeters. Impressively, some of the participants were accurate within ten centimeters. This suggests that while the blind subjects weren’t consciously aware of the echo, they were nonetheless able to respond to it unconsciously. At these distances, the delay between the generation of a sound and the returning echo is only 0.3 milliseconds. Even though this acute sensitivity is amazing, it pales in comparison to that of bats, which can detect echo delays of around 10 to 12 nanoseconds. Oddly, that is faster than the action potential of neurons, leaving the mechanism in need of explanation.
The above cases suggest that perceptual processes involve much more than we are consciously aware of. Our brain is primed to accomplish seemingly superhuman tasks even on the level of unconscious perception. It can turn sound waves striking the eardrum into complicated representations of our surroundings. It responds to sensory deficits in a way that seems almost intelligent, restructuring itself to make up for its limitations. The brain is good at generating navigation skills unconsciously or via a different sense modality, so good in fact that one might wonder why we have sensory experience in the first place.