Knowing Things We Never Learned:

Nearly all of us must struggle diligently to acquire even modest talent in Mathematics, Music, and Art. We encounter genius as rare people who display an amazing gift. Below them are random individuals of great talent and below them, the rest of us in a bell curve spread from mediocre to hopeless. Yet an effortless, genius-level mastery of these areas appears to be latent in our brains. How to back up such a claim? We can learn much about ourselves through the exceptions of pathology and extreme variation. A break in the pattern is what reveals the pattern.

There are three kinds of savants that reveal these “genius modules”.

The Congenital Savant

In this case, a developmental disability may be so profound that it isolates the person and reduces them socially to the point that others see them AS the disability more than an individual. Unexpectedly some extraordinary ability within them blooms like a magical flower.

Leslie Lemke, a musical savant is a good example. This is a 4 minute, deeply touching tale of a miraculous talent appearing from out of the blue.

What we are seeing here is a person deprived of most of the “How to be an interacting human” skills and displaying a deep structure of our brains, not contingent on being social. Imagine this genius module as standard equipment, expressed here without restriction. It becomes virtually the only interactive part of this very isolated person and often their doorway to human contact.

For the rest of us, this standard equipment is present but either not running, actively restricted for some reason, or running in a sealed, locked room, invisible and inaccessible.

The Acquired Savant

These savants are ordinary people, with all of the “how to be an interacting human” behaviors and generally speaking, no pre-existing passion for the skill that is literally knocked open in them. Typically some kind of CNS injury turns off the filtering of a genius module. And they instantly begin expressing this new part of their brain.

“A 10-year-old boy is knocked unconscious by a baseball. Following that traumatic blow, he suddenly can do calendar calculations. He can also remember the weather, along with other autobiographical details of his daily life, from that time forward. An elderly woman who had never painted before becomes a prodigious artist after a particular type of dementia process begins and progresses. Another elderly patient with dementia has a similar sudden epiphany of ability, but this time in music. A 56-year-old builder, who had no particular prior interest or skills in art, abruptly, for the first time in his life, becomes a poet, a painter and a sculptor following a stroke that he miraculously survived. An 8-year-old boy begins calendar calculating after a left hemispherectomy for intractable seizures. These are examples of what I call the “acquired” savant, or what might also be called “accidental genius.” “Darold A. Treffert, MD

Here’s one such compelling story, Derek Amato: 

The Sudden Savant

Again, a normal person becoming a savant but with no brain trauma or other observable cause. They just transition out of the blue into nearly obsessive artists, musicians, etc. Passion is one of the intriguing properties of savant syndrome. These aren’t people who have perfected a crazy bar trick and go on as before. Savants are in love with the world they’ve cracked open and aggressively explore it.

Some implications we might consider:

Savant syndrome seems at times to demonstrate the quantum physics theory that information without location is real and remotely accessible. That information simply exists in the universe and can be perceived instantly by a brain configured to receive it. The piano held magnetic significance to Leslie when he knew nothing about it. Derek was instantly drawn to the piano when he woke from his accident. He then didn’t spend days plunking piano keys to learn where the notes are, he just sat down and played. He also knew instantly all the necessary chord combinations. Whatever else genetic memory contains, I doubt piano keys are included. If nonlocal access to information is real, we live in a very different world than we think we do. If so, knowledge as complex as piano playing simply IS and sits out in the open for any to use. If you resist or reject this idea, present me with a model explaining the many people who wake up from a coma speaking another language fluently.

That multiple intelligences (musical, mathematical and artistic) are only fully expressed through savant syndrome supports the idea that our brain is a filter actively limiting our individual potential. At least it meters it out in a miserly way. Your mind is behaving as if you are using the free version that contains all features but only makes some available.

It is filtering out almost everything that doesn’t support a mainstream existential experience. Your brain is preventing you from operating like a savant because you are assigned to be a member of the “average type of human being” caste, the mainstream majority.

Mind as filter suggests that when we work very hard to acquire competence at math or music or art, we are scraping away at obstructions rather than piling up new knowledge. Differing degrees of talent represent different degrees of blockage. With acquired or “sudden savants” it’s as if the accident shattered the obstruction between them and they received full access. Genius modules are sitting there, untouchable, just across a gap.

These implications from Savants make a solid case for the existence of essential mind structures that are hereditary and innate. It would be very odd if these were the only examples. I can imagine these examples similarly modularized and standard.

  • Language Infrastructure, the system, and timing pattern of language acquisition
  • Jung’s Collective Unconscious, the architecture of narrative perception
  • Behavioral Auto Arrangement The system of automatic group and interpersonal behaviors

There may be many more. We know these are present but we lack a clear theory about their operation.  This isn’t a solid model for what these mind structures are, or how they operate, but imagination sketches a light preliminary picture.


From the actual researchers

Darold Treffert and Michael Gazzaniga are recognized experts on savant syndrome:

“To explain the savant, who has innate access to the vast syntax and rules of art, mathematics, music, and even language, in the absence of any formal training and in the presence of major disability, “genetic memory,” it seems to me, must exist along with the more commonly recognized cognitive/semantic and procedural/habit memory circuits. Genetic memory, simply put, is complex abilities and actual sophisticated knowledge inherited along with other more typical and commonly accepted physical and behavioral characteristics. In savants, the music, art or mathematical “chip” comes factory installed.”

Darold Treffert 

“The baby does not learn trigonometry, but knows it; does not learn how to distinguish figure from ground, but knows it; does not need to learn, but knows, that when one object with mass hits another, it will move the object … The vast human cerebral cortex is chock full of specialized systems ready, willing and able to be used for specific tasks. Moreover, the brain is built under tight genetic control … As soon as the brain is built, it starts to express what it knows, what it comes with from the factory. And the brain comes loaded. The number of special devices that are in place and active is staggering. Everything from perceptual phenomena to intuitive physics to social exchange rules comes with the brain. These things are not learned; they are innately structured. Each device solves a different problem … the multitude of devices we have for doing what we do are factory installed; by the time we know about an action, the devices have already performed it.”

Michael Gazzaniga, The Mind’s Past, 1998

“Leslie, and many other savants I have met, makes a persuasive case for multiple intelligences. IQ does measure something, which we might call traditional intelligence. But savants, 70 percent of whom have an IQ below 70, also show what I perceive to be musical intelligence, artistic intelligence or mathematical intelligence, to name several. And there are, I believe, other types of intelligence as well in all of us, and others have posited the same.

Equally striking, however, is the fact that these forms of intelligence in savants are there innately. They come “factory installed.” Clearly, Leslie and many other savants “know things they never learned.” To me, the only mechanism that makes that possible is “genetic” or “ancestral” memory. Such memory is the genetic transmission of not only skills and abilities, but also the inherited “knowledge” accompanying those skills such as the “rules” of music, art or mathematics. They inherit the “nature” part of the genius equation. “Nurture” then contributes mightily to the advancement of those skills and abilities.”

Darold Treffert