What Is a Savant? Famous Savants and What They Do

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Moonwalking With Einstein" by Joshua Foer. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is a savant, and who are the most famous savants? What classifies someone as a savant, and what can they tell us about the science of memory?

The most famous savants are people with a unique and specific skill. In Moonwalking With Einstein, Foer introduces well-known savants and their skills to show that the way memory works can change, and that some people have natural skills.

Read to find out what a savant is, and learn about famous savants.

What Is a Savant?

A “savant” used to be a person who was very intelligent and knowledgeable in several fields. These days, a savant is a person with a mental disability who has exceptional abilities in a narrow area, often to do with memory.

But what is a savant? Dr. Darold Treffert informally divides savants into three categories:

  1. Those who know a narrow set of trivia. For example, Treffert has a patient who can identify the model and year of a vacuum cleaner just from its sound.
  2. Those who have a more general talent, such as music or art, that’s notable because of their disability.
  3. Those who have abilities that would be exceptional even if not accompanied by a disability. These people are “prodigious savants.”

Note that none of these definitions consider whether or not someone has learned memory techniques.

Savantism expresses itself differently in different people, but the main thing famous savants have in common is damage to the left hemisphere of the brain. As a result, savants usually have difficulty with left-brain activities such as language but are exceptional at right-brain activities such as spatial and visual skills. Some scientists think that turning off the left brain allows right-brain skills to flourish.

Treffert thinks that famous savants might somehow be able to use their nondeclarative memory system (riding-a-bike type skills) to remember declarative things (facts, figures).

Spontaneous Savantism

People who suffer injuries to the left brain later in life sometimes develop savant-like abilities. This suggests that everyone might have the potential for savantism; it’s just a matter of getting the left brain out of the way. This leads to some well known savants.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) allows some experimentation in this area. TMS uses magnetic fields to temporarily shut off parts of the brain. Neuroscientist Allan Snyder has used TMS to temporarily shut off people’s left brains, and while partly shut down, people exhibit some savant-like behavior such as estimating the number of dots on a screen or drawing pictures from memory with more accuracy than they normally can.

Famous Savants

These are some of the most well known savants:

(Laurence) Kim Peek (“Rain Man”)

The inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film Rain Man, Kim is a prodigious savant with an amazing memory. He is one of the most famous savants. He claims to have read 9,000 books, spending only ten seconds per page, and can regurgitate all the information. (The author suspects this is hyperbole.) His caregiver says he never forgets anything.

When Kim was born, his head was a third larger than normal and had a blister. Kim didn’t learn to walk until he was four and until he was fourteen, he was on sedatives. Once he got off the sedatives, he became interested in books. Though he’s very well-read, he doesn’t seem to be able to use the information he reads about, only recall it. His IQ is 87 and his social skills are underdeveloped. 

Kim’s not autistic and science doesn’t know much about his savantism. Kim doesn’t have a corpus callosum, which is the part of the brain that connects the right and left hemispheres.

When the author interviewed Kim, they spent some of the time in the library memorizing phone books. Kim would finish a page in the time it took the author to learn five names. When the author asked Kim how he did it, he said he just remembers.

Daniel Tammet/Corney/Andersson (Featured in the Film Brainman)

Daniel Tammet is either a prodigious savant or a good mnemonist. The author, along with some other mental athletes, suspects he’s a mnemonist, but Tammet claims to be a savant who’s never practiced memory techniques.

When Daniel was four, he suffered a life-threatening epileptic seizure that affected his brain. After the seizure, he was able to quickly learn languages and perform lightning-fast calculations. For Daniel, numbers allegedly have color, emotional tone, and shape. When he does mental math, he sees the images of two numbers he needs to multiply or divide, and the answer’s image forms between them.

Brain scientist Simon Baron-Cohen thinks that Daniel has two rare conditions that are responsible for his savantism, Asperger’s and synesthesia (his brain processes information using more than one sense). As a child, Daniel struggled with empathy and often got in trouble for taking things literally. As an adult, he’s gotten past most of his social problems, but he still can’t drive or shave. Regardless, he’s one of the most well known savants.

The author isn’t convinced Daniel is a genuine savant because:

  • Daniel competed in the World Memory Championship twice, under the name “Daniel Corney,” and finished in fourth place in 2000, but he didn’t mention this in his memoir or interviews with the author.
  • In scientific testing, Daniel had a bad memory for faces and names, which would be consistent with savantism, but at the World Memory Championship, he won those events.
  • He passed some of the tests for synesthesia but failed others, so he may not be a real synesthete.
  • He didn’t allow Anders Ericsson to study him.
  • Every time the author asked Daniel what the number 9,412 looked like, he gave a different answer. This is problematic because synesthetes process information using multiple senses—for example, numbers inherently have colors and shapes—so Daniel should have mentally seen the same image every time he heard a particular number. (However, synesthetes aren’t always perfectly consistent.) 
  • The author found an old website and advertisement that suggested Daniel was aware of memory techniques. 
  • The author also found messages in which Daniel, this time writing as “Daniel Andersson,” had written that his epileptic episode made him psychic, which Daniel admitted was untrue. If Daniel had lied about the relationship between his epileptic episode and his psychic powers, he might also be lying about the episode’s effect on his mental powers.
  • Mental math, like memory, has techniques. While Daniel did mental math in Brainman, he moved his fingers as he did it, which is related to a common calculation technique. Another of Daniel’s feats, calendar calculating, can also be learned.

When the author asked Daniel about all of this, he said that several scientists had tested him and that he doesn’t use memory techniques.

The author doesn’t think Daniel’s just a normal person—he’s been very successful at memory techniques—but he thinks that Daniel’s memory isn’t unconscious and automatic like Kim’s. Other people should be able to do what Daniel does.

These famous savants have specific skills that make them savants. Although there’s no definite answer on how someone becomes a savant, it proves how interesting memory is.

What Is a Savant? Famous Savants and What They Do

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Moonwalking With Einstein summary:

  • The memory techniques that took the author from novice to US memory champion in one year
  • The 6 key types of memory we use everyday
  • Why memory isn't just genetic, and how you can improve your memory with the right techniques

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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