memory bank: cloud in the head

Apparently Cyrus the Great could address every soldier in his army by name. Leon Gambetta, the French statesman, could quote thousands of pages of Victor Hugo verbatim. Possessors of these preternaturally powerful memories are called eidetics. Some call them freaks. It seems that nature’s hand twitched at the moment she minted each of them.

It appears eidetics come in several grades and Cyrus and Gambetta, though seemingly impressive, are considered bottom feeders. Their memories are just freezers, that kept memories fresh until needed. Nothing happened to what was stored. Consider for example Paul Morphy of New Orleans who once played eight games of chess simultaneously against eight expert opponents, winning six with one loss and a draw; all the more impressive sine Morphy was blindfolded.

---silberman:Until recently, much of what we knew about savants came from the observations of clinicians like Treffert and neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of An Anthropologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Now researchers are probing the savant mind from the inside, using tools like gene mapping and PET scans. As these two paths of investigation converge, many of our long-held notions about the limits of human potential are being overturned. Read More: image:


J.H. Blackburne of London once played twelve such games. He had not only to visualize the positions of 384 chessmen but to revise his mental images after every move. More than that, he had at the same time to plan twelve separate campaigns. Passive memory was not enough here; it had to be supplemented by continuous and intense cogitation.

Some other feats are so difficult as to seem incredible. Or impossible. Like those who can draw out answers to long drawn out mathematical problems such as Oscar Verhaege running off thirty-five digit responses in under a minute. True, Mozart was proficiently tinkling the ivories at four and John Stuart Mill was prattling in Greek to his father’s satisfaction by three, but these are more in the realm of the prodigy than the other-worldly: the instantaneous estimate of Jedediahs Buxton and George Parker Bidder were cases of brain fever personified.

---Another savant who had never received any musical instruction whatsoever could play anything she heard on a piano, yet still had the mental age of someone less than three years old. Also, in almost every case, there were very rigid limits as to what these people could actually do with the talent they had. So although one might be able to recite all manner of detail or facts about something, he or she would not be able to apply that information in any other way than the narrow method they were used to. Obviously, most of these impressive feats are tied in some way to memory, and almost all of these individuals have a phenomenal memory for detail. Finally, such persons are most often male, with the male-to-female ratio being roughly six-to-one. Read More:

Jacques Inaudi could tell the day of the week on which a given day fell. This was one of the most mysterious of nature’s freakish gifts. How is it possible for someone to tell you instantly that July 2, 1610 was a Tuesday? Yet, there are persons who can do it.

Two retarded identical twins, George and Charles, became known as the “Human Calendars” during the 1960′s and received much attention from the press and scientific world. George and Charles were inmates of Letchworth Village in New York and had measured IQ’s in the 60 range. In a demonstration of their abilities, a psychiatrist asked them to add 2 + 2. Several minutes passed and the brothers could not come up with the answer. The psychiatrist then asked the twins, “Perhaps you can tell us what months in the year 2002 will start on Friday?” The brothers brightened up and instantly replied in unison, “March, February and November”! The brothers can perform this feat for any date that is asked. George, who is better at it than Charles, can calculate dates up to at least the year 7,000 A.D….

---In autistic savants, like Matt, the problems are more pervasive. Autism rewires the brain's entire network, from the limbic system to the executive functions in the frontal lobes that enable us to absorb new experiences, prioritize tasks, set goals, and imagine the future. When these are damaged, we're at the mercy of a flood of incoming sensory impressions and conflicting impulses. I can see this in Matt as his eyes dart around the restaurant. He's intensely awake to the world but perpetually distractible. Being with him is exhilarating and exhausting. While I scribble in my notebook, he slaps his hand on the table. "This is not lunch, this is questions," he groans. "Let's do something interesting like proportions at work!" Then a torrent bursts out of him: Did you know that if you had the metabolism of a shrew you would have to eat 600 hamburgers a day? Or that if you grew as fast as a snake you would be taller than mountaintops and heavier than two and a half million elephants in a month? And if you could jump like a flea, you could leap over Lady Liberty's torch! There's a mechanical quality to Matt's relentless enumerations, as if his brain copes with information overload by siphoning the river of his experience into streams of quantities and ratios. For Matt, the constraints of harmony and rhythm must be comforting, while the freedom of improvisation offers him a kind o

asured release. Savants are drawn in particular to the piano, which neatly subdivides the universe of sound into a linear map with 88 keys. Like the calendar, the piano orders the chaos of experience into a system of "proportions at work." Read More: image (2008):


…Like almost all idiot savants, George and Charles have no ability for abstraction. They cannot subtract simple figures but if they are told they are subtracting apples, then they can do at least minor calculations. It is unclear what function determines what they can and can’t do. The twins can tell you that George Washington would be 249 years old if he were alive today, yet they can’t solve the abstract equation 2 + 2. It seems the logical part of their minds is singularly focused on only one area – calendar dates. Read More:


On Rain Man: The toothpick scene (246 toothpicks seen instantly as they fall to the floor) is the same ability the savant twins, George and Charles, showed with matches. The lightning calculating Raymond Babbitt shows in multiplication or extraction of square roots is common among mathematical savants. Memorization of a phone book through the G’s is not impossible; witness the “exaltation of memory” among the mnemonist savants.

---RICHARD FOREMAN, Founder Director, Ontological-Hysteric Theater, has written, directed and designed over fifty of his own plays both in New York City and abroad. His most recent playIdiot Savant, starring Willem Defoe, recently opened at The Public Theatre in New York City and runs through December 20th.--- Read More:


In short, mind-boggling as some of the scenes in Rain Man are, they draw from the kinds of skills that do exist in real-life Rain Men and Rain Women. The story line may be fictional but a factual basis for what may appear to be preposterous skills does exist. To the film’s credit, it did not stray far from the truth for either autism or Savant Syndrome. It did not have to. Autism is that intriguing and Savant Syndrome is that remarkable. There is no need to embellish or alter either one, for together they provide a fascinating story. Read More:

Steve Silberman:

GrEAtNess DiAgNosEd
Are certain forms of creativity enhanced by brain damage? Do the same genetic traits that produce disorders like savant syndrome, autism, and Tourette’s contribute to genius? Hans Asperger, who in the early 1940s pioneered the study of autism, believed the answer was yes. “For success in science and art,” he wrote, “a dash of autism is essential.” The biographies of many innovative thinkers bear him out. – S.S.

Thelonious Monk
Jazz composer and improviser
Possible diagnosis: Tourette’s syndrome
The high priest of bebop spoke in a medley of grunts and cosmic aphorisms and danced around his piano – and his ticcish syncopations blasted jazz out of the swing era.

Carl Friedrich Gauss
Mathematician and astronomer
Possible diagnosis: prodigious savant
Gauss taught himself to read at age 3; by 10 he was considered a math prodigy. His discoveries in number theory threw open the gates of post-Euclidian geometry.

Glenn Gould
Classical pianist
Possible diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome
Gould was a legendary control freak in the studio. But when he sat down at the piano, he channeled Bach. Like many savants, he had absolute pitch and a steel-trap memory.

Samuel Johnson
Writer and lexicographer
Possible diagnosis: Tourette’s syndrome
Johnson, the author of the first English dictionary, was prone to ritualistic movements punctuated by outbursts of barnyard noises and fragments of the Lord’s Prayer. Read More:

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