How do you distinguish between genius and madness

Savants: between genius and madness?

Savants are people with an island talent. That means: You have special skills in one area. It is mostly the fine arts, mathematics or even music in which Savants perform exceptionally, like Matt Savage. At the age of six he taught himself to play the piano almost overnight. He begins composing jazz pieces and amazes even jazz legends like Chick Corea with his unusually great talent. He is brilliant at music, but he has great difficulty dealing with others. A doctor made the diagnosis early on: Matt is autistic.

Not all autistic people are savants

Brain scans in autistic people have shown that there is little activity in the brain regions responsible for feeling and processing language. The ability to recognize faces is also often impaired in autistic people. However, when it comes to objects or to recognize systems, brain activity is particularly high. Some autistic people had so-called branch skills, explains Thorsten Fehr from the Center for Cognitive Science in Bremen. "On the one hand, there are very individual skills that have been developed in such a field. On the other hand, especially at Savants, we always have to deal with deficits, with handicaps, with intellectual disabilities." This is part of the definition for this group of people.

City views from memory

The images of Savant Stephen Wiltshire show detailed cityscapes

Stephen Wiltshire from London also has an island talent. He is nicknamed "the living camera". For a documentary he flew 45 minutes in a helicopter over Rome. Then he drew the city on the Tiber from memory as a detailed aerial panorama over an area of ​​five meters in length. Every window, every post on this drawing corresponds to reality. "In that case we would actually speak of an art or reproduction savant," says Fehr. "What we can assume with certainty at Stephen Wiltshire is that he has developed a very special ability to store visual content, especially in the back of his brain. And storing certain information is one of the outstanding strengths of most savants."

Around 100 savants are known worldwide. Half of them are autistic, in the other half neurophysiological brain diseases or a traumatic brain injury can also play a role. For years, researchers have been trying to find out what exactly is behind the extraordinary brain performance. One of the most prominent theories is what is known as paradoxical facilitation, says Fehr. "Imagine you have a system where there is a problem because it is not working properly. Instead, another part of this system can come to the fore, so to speak, and then possibly produce special talents."

Rain Man

Kim Peek had 12,000 books stored in his brain

One of the most famous savants was Kim Peek from Salt Lake City in the USA. He was able to store historical dates, the calendar, the telephone area code of the USA or even entire books in his brain - like on the hard drive of a computer. He could read two pages at the same time: one with his left eye, the other with his right eye. He needed 53 seconds for eight pages and saved everything. The contents of 12,000 books were in his brain. If necessary, the deceased in 2009 could call up all this information. But in everyday life Peek was completely helpless, couldn't dress himself or get something to eat.

When he was born, his head was a third bigger than the average baby. "Kim Peek had a cerebral, that is, a brain-related, peculiarity. There was no regular separation of the hemispheres with him," explains Fehr. "And that is a very, very rare phenomenon. We have to speculate that this unusual networking of the two brain areas is also due to the fact that he was able to store huge amounts of information."

Kim Peek provided the template for the film "Rain Man" with Dustin Hoffman, who plays the autistic Raymond Babitt. He is also a savant. In the 1988 film, the protagonist not only learns entire telephone books by heart, he also solves complex arithmetic problems in fractions of a second. Just like Peek, the character in the film also has significant shortcomings. Raymond is mentally handicapped and a typical savant. The film brought the subject of "autism" to the general public at the end of the 1980s and drew attention to the phenomenon of savants.

In the film "Rain Man" Dustin Hoffman plays the autistic Raymond

Savant or Expert?

George Widener was considered behavioral as a child. He had trouble communicating with others. In 2000 I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. Widener's talent for islands is calendar arithmetic. In this way, he can assign the exact day of the week to any date and that over an extremely long period of time. 'What day of the week was April 12, 1312?' George Widener knows, says Fehr. "He's clearly a savant." With him, the island talent goes hand in hand with a mental handicap, with a mental handicap.

Fehr worked with George Widener and examined him intensively. "And there we could see exactly that activations could be seen in the back of the brain, including in the cerebellum. They were different from those of the German arithmetic artist Rüdiger Gamm. Fehr compared the two with each other. Gamm is able to to calculate powers in a matter of seconds and translate them into almost infinite series of numbers Most people probably don't even know the names for these numbers.

"How much is 73 to the 12th?" asks the host of a television show. Rüdiger Gamm's answer comes straight out of the gun: 282 288 975 128 239 507 545 882 230 784, i.e. 282 quadrillion, 288 quadrillion, 975 trillion, 128 trillion, 239 trillion, 507 trillion, 545 billion, 882 million, 230 Thousand, 784.

Nevertheless, Gamm is not considered a savant. "Savants are unable to organize their own lives," explains Fehr. Rüdiger Gamm, on the other hand, lives quite normally and inconspicuously. "But he's eccentric, but not handicapped. That's a major difference." Gamm uses his memory very efficiently. It calculates calendar data primarily according to certain algorithms, i.e. according to a certain system of rules. George Widener, on the other hand, learns them by heart. He links it with knowledge from the arts and history, explains Fehr. "He also draws and paints pictures. Both Widener and Gamm bring the same performance at a very, very high level, but they mentally pursue completely different paths to get the same results."

Rüdiger Gamm's results also include a very special type of reading: snesel sed tra elleizeps znag enie - he can also do it backwards.