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June 25, 2003
The skills of idiots

There's a fascinating posting at 2Blowhards, about why mental superpowers so often go hand in hand (brain location with brain location) with mental inadequacies of other sorts. Here's the bit that grabbed me:

The argument of Alan Snyder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sydney, is that (1) the unusual mental abilities of savants (autistics who are capable of amazing mental feats) are actually present in all human beings, (2) that these abilities—such as the ability to do complex mental arithmetic rapidly, to remember with photographic detail and accuracy, to instantly spot proofreading errors, etc. – are actually just basic, lower-level brain processes that occur below the level of ordinary human consciousness, (3) that somehow our ordinary conscious processes mask these abilities or prevent us from accessing them, and (4) that these savant-like skills can be brought out by using TMS to turn down the volume on the "masking" processes.

That makes more sense of the "idiot savant" phenomenon than anything else I've ever read. I've never believed that savants possessed any powers I didn't have, merely that for some reason I couldn't get at my own similar powers, and that for some other reason, connected with their other mental problems, they could.

TMS, by the way, stands for "transcranial magnetic stimulation". Read more by following the link that Friedrich Blowhard supplies to this New York Times article.

They're learning more and more by the month about how the human brain actually works, as opposed to just recommending books to each other full of more or less sensible speculations on the subject, which is how things used to be. This knowledge is bound to have educational consequences sooner or later.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:29 PM
Category: How the human mind works


A few months back you were talking about Vernor Vinge's novel A Fire Upon the Deep. The prequel to this novel, A Deepness in the Sky deals with the type of issue you are talking about in this post. (In the book, a number of the characters are forced to undergo treatment that brings certain mental skills to the fore, and as a consequence the characters lose their ability to function as normal human beings. The book is largely about the ethical issues of this, which aren't especially simple.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on June 25, 2003 10:23 PM
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