Book review: Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant, by Darold A. Treffert.
This book contains a fair amount of interesting information, but the writing style leaves much to be desired, and many parts disappointed me.
It describes savant syndrome (formerly known as “idiot savant”), where unusually good numeric or artistic skills coexist with some sort of mental disability (and usually prodigious memory).
Some people appear to have been born with savant skills, a few developed the skills in what appears to be a sudden insight. But the cases that seem to tell us the most about what is special about savants are the ones where the skills emerge after a brain injury. Savant skill seem to be often caused by a left brain dysfunction removing some inhibitions that prevented the right side of the brain from developing or displaying unusual skills.
This suggests that there may be some sense in which we all can potentially develop savant skills.
He doesn’t provide a good explanation of why the syndrome is defined so that savants with no disability fail to qualify. There seems to be some tendency for savant skills to coexist with some drawbacks (such as the drawbacks associated with autism), but the author denies that there’s any trade-off requiring that savant skill cause deficiencies in other areas.
Some of the weaker parts of the book claim some savants know things they couldn’t have learned, and attribute skills to genetic memory. I find it much more plausible that the savants learned their skills in ways that would look like an extreme form of normal learning, and that we just don’t know how to observe when and where they accomplished the learning.