Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Savants and synesthetes

On the heels of my post about talented American autistic Temple Grandin, a peek into the world of savants and synesthetes.

A savant (these days we leave off the politically incorrect modifier "idiot") is an intellectually disabled person who exhibits extraordinary ability in a highly specialized area, such as mathematics or music. Prodigious savants are often known for their instantaneous calculations - as depicted in "Rain Man," based on Kim Peek (1958-2009) - and their photographic memories.

A synesthete is a person who has a subjective sensation or image of a sense other than the one being stimulated. Over 60 types of synesthesia have been reported, with some of the most common variations listed below:
  • letters or numbers are perceived as colors
  • numbers or calendar items (days, months) elicit precise locations in space
  • words (or parts of words) evoke tastes in the mouth
Such people are the subjects of books with titles like The Man Who Tasted Shapes and authors like British neurologist Oliver Sacks, who describes a man who hears music in colors.

There are on-line communities for individuals with savant syndrome and synesthesia. Neatorama lists 10 fascinating savants and New Scientist discusses synesthetes who see time. Over the summer, Radio New Zealand interviewed a woman for whom numbers have distinct personalities. And early this year, the New York Times focused on a man who can track every nut and bolt in the family hardware store - without the use of a computer. Blessed with his unique abilities and the wherewithal to describe the way he experiences things, high-functioning British autistic Daniel Tammet (b. 1979) is both a savant and a synesthete.

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