Island talent

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Savant syndrome (also Savant syndrome ([ savɑ zʏndʁoːm ]) or partial performance ) refers to the phenomenon that individual people can accomplish very specific exceptional performance in small portions ( "islands"), although they have a handicap (eg. As a cognitive disability or another, often profound , developmental disorder ).

There appears to be a connection between autism and savant syndrome: 50 percent of known islanders are autistic . Six out of seven islanders gifted are male. The savant syndrome became known to the public primarily through the film Rain Man .

So far, there is no reliable research on how often savant syndrome occurs. In 1989, the autism researcher Darold Treffert proposed a distinction between “amazing” and “ talented ” islanders. While the “amazing” islanders had really outstanding skills, the “talented” had at best average performance, which, however, was remarkable in view of their disability. There are currently around 100 known people around the world who, according to this subdivision, could be described as “amazing islanders”. The intelligence quotient of these people is usually below 70, but it can also be average or, more rarely, above average. These skills are very different.

To the subject

The term "idiot savant" (thought of as "someone who knows only a little bit"), introduced in 1887 by the English neurologist John Langdon Down in a series of lectures at the London Medical Society, is misleading and discriminatory by today's standards.

Currently one speaks of islanders or savants . The American psychiatrist and researcher Darold Treffert describes particularly outstanding islanders as prodigious savants , derived from prodigy (child prodigy, talent). Autistic gifted islanders are also called "Autistic Savant" or "Savant Autistique". The term “savant” is also misleading, since the noun “savant” in the French and English languages means “knower” or “ scholar ” in a broad sense .

The term "island talent" comes closest to getting to the heart of the phenomenon, as it expresses that with overall weak talent in a delimited individual subject, an island, there can be outstanding performance that is in bizarre contrast to the rest of the personality. It is “an isolated gift in the midst of defects” ( Douwe Draaisma , 2006).


The causes of island talents are not yet exactly known. The case descriptions in the literature contain the most varied of characterizations. Some musical savants are blind . It is currently assumed that the Savants lack an important filter function that hides unimportant data.

Island skills are almost always innate, but can also have developed later from brain damage. The language of most of the islanders is clearly underdeveloped; but there are also those who take up a foreign language in a very short time. Sufficient exceptions can be made for each rule. Generalizations are not possible, and accordingly the interpretations of the causes also differ.

When looking for explanations, a distinction must be made between the testable ability of the islanders and the question of why they can. First of all, it is a question of possible strategies that island-gifted people use, and of whether these achievements are based on recognizable memory aids, arithmetic skills or the skillful application of rules of thumb. It is known from arithmetic artists among the islanders that they do not actually calculate, but rather call up the required elements from an almost infinite fund of number chains and “building blocks” stored in their memory and combine them to new number chains, which are then also saved and when the same task - even if it is 20 years later - are quickly available. Sometimes original mistakes and their subsequent correction are repeated stereotypically, which supports this memory theory. Drawing artists like Stephen Wiltshire usually have a photographic memory , whereby the overall picture with all, even the smallest details, is recorded in one act. As already described by Langdon Down, the islanders keep the superficial facts, but not the connections and not the underlying theories.

The second question is why the islanders can develop such strategies and others cannot. A unified theory is not yet in sight. Precisely because of the variety of manifestations, most of the hypotheses derived from individual phenomena have only limited informative value.

The oldest theory assumed that geniuses who were gifted on the island were unsuccessful and that all but one were irreparably damaged by birth defects. As far as we know today, this hypothesis is not tenable. Another consideration seeks the explanation of the phenomenon in compensation. As a result of a sensual disorder or autistic disposition, those gifted on islands have a compensatory tendency to occupy themselves with trivial and bizarre activities and nothing can dissuade them from this one track mind . According to Douwe Draaisma, the island talent is the product of concentration, one-sidedness and endless repetition.

A hypothesis by Harvard neurologists Norman Geschwind and Albert Galaburda is based on findings in brain research, according to which accelerated brain growth occurs between the tenth and the eighteenth week of the embryonic phase. Disturbances of these explosively accelerated neuronal connections lead to massive brain damage. One of the possible confounders is the male hormone testosterone , which circulates in the body while the embryo's testicles are being created. A high testosterone level has an inhibitory effect on the growth of the cerebral cortex. This theory could explain the male over-representation among the islanders.

The brain researcher Michael Fitzgerald from Trinity College (Dublin) also sees the outstanding creativity of the islanders as a result of the neural circuitry that exists in the autistic population. In his opinion, many geniuses like Albert Einstein , Isaac Newton and Mozart had more or less strong forms of autism . Allan Snyder from the University of Sydney assumes that you have to switch off certain areas of the brain in order to be able to release the reserves of the other areas. However, his test results with strong magnetic fields ( rTMS ) and the theses derived from them are controversial.

Another popular theory is that the brain's filtering mechanisms are disrupted in people with gifted islands. This only selected information from the unconscious and only individual held to be relevant, memory information would be supplied to the conscious part of the brain to the excessive demands to prevent and to let the people in everyday life decisions faster and more intuitive. Some scientists assume that everyone without exception stores all sensory impressions in their memory, but only has access to the important ones, while a savant can access any information in a partial area, regardless of its relevance or emotional significance.

More recent research (2012) on fruit flies for memory formation also suggests possible causes in connection with dopamine and savants. This would accommodate such theories. It could be shown that a dopamine receptor (DAMB receptor) plays an important role in the process of "forgetting".

It is important to bear in mind that there is not just one savant, but a broad spectrum of islanders with very different brain disorders and partial talents. This is why it is difficult to “simulate” the savant state and to temporarily transform normally gifted people into “autistic geniuses”, as the Australian researcher Allan Snyder is trying to do.

Well-known people with island talent

Exceptional memory

  • Solomon Weniaminowitsch Schereschewski (* 1886; † 1958) was a memory phenomenon whose comprehensive memory capacity was apparently not subject to any of the usual memory laws. The Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Romanowitsch Lurija observed Schereschewski for 30 years with regular experiments and published his results in a case study.
  • Kim Peek (1951–2009) said he knew the contents of around 12,000 books by heart. He read this amount by means of an extraordinary ability: he could read two pages at the same time, one with the left eye and the other with the right eye. He also named the zip code , area code and highway that leads there for each US city . Furthermore, he could name the day of the week for any date within seconds. Kim Peek was the model of Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 film Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman as the leading actor.
  • Orlando Serrell (* 1969) was hit in the head by a baseball at the age of ten and has since remembers every single detail of his life since the accident.

Musical talents

  • Leslie Lemke (* 1952; blind), who can play back pieces of music from memory.
  • Tony DeBlois (* 1974; blind), who can play around 8000 pieces on the piano and masters 13 other instruments.
  • Derek Paravicini (* 1979; blind), who learned to play the piano at the age of two, gave his first major concert at the age of nine and at the age of 28 was able to play 12,000 pieces of music by heart. He learns the pieces by listening to them once.
  • Matt Savage (* 1992; autistic), jazz pianist who taught himself to play the piano overnight at the age of six. At the age of seven he was already composing his own pieces and releasing his first CD.
  • Brittany Maier (* 1989; blind, autistic), American pianist who, at the age of 18, had a music repertoire of over 15,000 pieces. She only plays with six fingers as she cannot move them all.
  • Tom Wiggins (1849–1908; blind), musically extraordinarily talented, but below average in all other areas of life.

Mathematical talents

  • Rüdiger Gamm (* 1971) has an extraordinary talent especially in the area of ​​numbers, on the one hand the actual arithmetic, but on the other hand also keeping results with large amounts of numbers that can still be "accessed" even after many years. It is controversial whether Gamm is really a savant, because he has the ability to adapt his calculation algorithms to new problems. However, savants act more intuitively and cannot do that.
  • Jason Padgett can see geometric shapes and fractals everywhere after a concussion from a fight.
  • Daniel Tammet (* 1979) has the ability to solve mathematical problems and calculations extremely quickly and to reproduce the results with up to a hundred decimal places. In addition, he showed in a test that he could learn a previously unfamiliar language - Icelandic - within a week.

Artistic gifts

  • Alonzo Clemons , who can make animal sculptures from clay according to illustrations in books, but can neither read nor write and can only speak very rudimentary.
  • Richard Wawro (1952–2006), who was able to create what he saw with wax crayons after just a few seconds of brief observation.
  • Stephen Wiltshire (* 1974), who can draw a picture true to detail and perspective correctly after viewing it once. In this way he drew complete cityscapes of London, Rome , Hong Kong and Frankfurt am Main after just one helicopter tour.
  • Gilles Tréhin (* 1972), who since 1984 "built" a fictional city called Urville on paper in the form of numerous drawings. He studied history in order to give his city a history.
  • Gottfried Mind (1768–1814), who was physically handicapped and was considered mentally retarded, but showed a talent in the field of fine arts and specialized in children's and animal motifs - especially cat drawings.
  • Seth F. Henriett (Fajcsák Henrietta, * 1980) is an autistic poet, painter and writer from an early age .
  • George Widener (* 1962) is an American artist who was already considered to have behavioral problems as a child, but whose savant syndrome was only diagnosed at the age of 38. Since then he has artistically processed his special talent for numbers and data.

Linguistic abilities

  • Ziad Fazah , Lebanese, is fluent in 59 languages ​​including Chinese, Thai, Greek, Indonesian, Hindi, and Persian. Most of these languages ​​Fazah taught himself. This takes a lot of perseverance and discipline, explains the multilingual, whose talent has also been included in the Guinness Book of Records .
  • Muhamed Mešić , Bosnian , lawyer , Judaist and Japanologist as well as a talent for languages. At the age of 26 he already spoke 56 languages. A kind of island talent, a form of autism , was attested to him.
  • Christopher Taylor , who can understand, write and read 25 languages ​​and speak ten of them more or less fluently. A computed tomography of his brain did not reveal any special features. Autistic islanders are otherwise not particularly linguistically gifted, which is why Christopher Taylor stands out. It's unclear why he scores poorly on general intelligence tests but reaches university level on language tests. It seems that the autistic motivation is different, that he only collects vocabulary and sentences and regards language as a mere (learnable) system, the use of this for communication with other people is unimportant.

Visual gifts

  • Temple Grandin (* 1947) thinks in pictures and can empathize with animals, especially cattle. She now teaches at Colorado State University. Your life was filmed in You are not alone .

See also


Film, DVDs

  • Petra Höfer and Freddie Röckenhaus : Expedition into the brain ; Part 1: memory giants ; Part 2: The Einstein Effect ; Part 3: The Big Difference . (DVD, German / English, approx. 156 minutes) Scientific documentation on islanders and autistic people with savant abilities. ARTE and Radio Bremen . TR-Verlagsunion , 2006, ISBN 3-8058-3772-0 . The film ( Beautiful Minds: A Voyage Into The Brain ) by the biologist Gerhard Roth from the University of Bremen and Darold Trefferts from the University of Wisconsin – Madison (University of Wisconsin Medical School) in the USA presents some of the above-mentioned islanders from different backgrounds Countries before: Howard Potter, Orlando Serrell, Kim Peek, Matt Savage, Stephen Wiltshire, Temple Grandin, Alonzo Clemons, Christopher Taylor, Rüdiger Gamm. It has been broadcast by television companies in over twenty countries. Many of the islanders were initially considered to be "mentally handicapped " and some of them were taught in special schools.

Web links

Wiktionary: Island talent  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b Darold A. Treffert: Extraordinary People. Understanding "Idiot Savants". New York 1989, ISBN 0-06-015945-6 .
  2. Is there a scholar slumbering in each of us?
  3. Douwe Draaisma: The profit of a defect: the savant syndrome. In: Why life goes by faster when you get older - From the riddles of our memories. Piper 2006, ISBN 3-492-24492-0 (with further references).
  4. Heinz Hättig: Linguistic laterality and handedness. HU Berlin .
  5. N. Geschwind, AM Galaburda: Cerebral Lateralization: biological mechanisms, associations, and pathology. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1987, ISBN 0-262-07101-0 .
  6. Molecular biological causes
  7. Jacob A. Berry et al.
  8. Norddeutscher Rundfunk, series "Expedition into the Brain" (2006)
  9. Bas Kast: The Power of Intuition, 2007.
  10. biography. ( Memento of the original from December 21, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. In: , accessed on December 21, 2014 (English). @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  11. American becomes a math genius after a beating. In: Focus Online , April 23, 2014.
  12. FM4 - youth room. FM4, September 11, 2009, accessed August 6, 2020 .