Turning on your inner savant

New Zealand scientist Allan Snyder, director of the Center for the Mind at the University of Sydney, gave a talk to the esteemed Royal Society yesterday where he suggested that it may be possible to "turn on" the amazing mental skills exhibited by some autistic savants. Snyder is best known for controversial claims that transcranial magnetic stimulation, zapping regions of the brain with magnetic pulses, can temporarily enable autistic savant-like intellectual feats. From a press release:
"To do this," says Snyder, "we direct magnetic pulses into the brain, to a specific site called the left anterior temporal lobe, which is near to the left ear. This site has been implicated in individuals who suddenly display autistic savant skills after injury or fronto-temporal lobe dementia." The magnetic pulses are applied over the left anterior temporal lobe for 15 minutes using directed, low frequency rTMS."

During one study conducted by Prof Snyder and his colleagues participants were asked to perform a specific task, before, during, immediately after, and 45 minutes after rTMS treatment, with tasks including drawing a dog, horse or face from memory in one minute, or proofreading a document.

The result was a major change in the drawing ability in four out of the 11 participants, two of these participants also showed a noticeable improvement in their ability to recognise duplicated words in the proofreading task. Their abilities returned to normal within about an hour.

In a similar study, ten out of twelve participants had an improved ability after the rTMS treatment to accurately guess a large number of objects in one and half seconds, an ability which faded after the treatment.
Unlocking the Inner-Savant In All Of Us

Previously on BB:
Juicing the Brain in Scientific American
Magnetic fields and mind control
IEEE Spectrum on brain zapping to treat depression


  1. It would suck if instead of turning on your inner savant, it turned on your inner idiot. (Can we talk about “idiot savants” any more, or has that been replaced by a politer term?)

  2. “That is the /sexiest/ thing I have /ever/ seen.” — Carl Reiner as Saul Bloom, Ocean’s Eleven.

    I concur with Joel. Good science involves reproducing the experiment. A lot.

  3. Hmm, that “inproving the chances of guessing objects” sounds intriguingly like psychic powers…

  4. I hate to be that guy, but this sounds like a lot of hooey to me. Like those guys that will tell you that hypnosis/magnetism/pyramids/whatever will give you AMAZING MIND POWERS!!!!

    I’d like to see corroboration from some peer-review studies. And like, a lot of them.

  5. Daemon: It’s an ability to accurately estimate the number of objects in a group – ala “Guess how many jellybeans are in the jar and win a free ice cream cone!”.

    Someone who married into my extended family tried that as a game at a family reunion. It boggled her mind that I, my brother, and two of my cousins had all guessed correctly (437).

  6. Oskar: Yes, lots and lots of peer-reviewed studies. Lots.

    Is my naked lust for this device yet apparent?


    The Savantinator turns any bike helmet into a “mind-blowing” cognocitive accelerator in just seconds. It’s unique design wraps around your head with almost painless screws unlike many cheap imitations.

    Helps solve tought quantum mechanics problems, shine on double violin and tones your fine dextrity in LESS THAN 15 MINUTES DAILY.

    Features 3 boosting levels: witty, expert and Jeopardy(TM). Call NOW!

  8. Imagine Microsoft in five years, cubicle after cubicle of young people wearing odd helmets furiously banging away at keyboards.

    We need an Open Source hardware project on this NOW or Linux is lost!

  9. I’m not able to rationalise the physical volume occupied by the one on the left’s hair. Is it combed over a partly inflated balloon?

  10. @11: Speedreading is a filthy lie. If you want to actually, you know, understand what the hell it is your reading, you have to go basically as slow as the rest of us. You can’t get spectacular results with 100% comprehension, which is what matters. Unless you’re autistic or something like that.

  11. @14: Unless you’re autistic or something like that.
    Yeah, it helps. I’ve been reading at 1000+wpm since the age of 3 with a 97% comprehension average. No speed-reading courses, just brain eccentricities. I even had a friend in 6th grade take a speed-reading course to “beat me”… yeah, no such luck. His comprehension and retention when speed-reading were terrible.

  12. Speed reading isn’t all about comprehension and retention. It’s about skimming the crap and finding the parts you need to read. Great for forum comments :)

  13. …as with all things that sound like “woo” (as well as the remaining things that don’t) I ask, “How did the control group do?”. That one simple question commonly causes scientifical advances to suddenly not be so advanced. Until it’s double-blind/placebo group tested, it’s anecdotal.
    Do you know what works anecdotally? Everything.

  14. My problem is that I’m a savant for a musical instrument that won’t be invented until 2105. My great-great-great grandfather was a savant for playing WoW, but he couldn’t convince the warden to let him plug his primitive, hand-built 360 into the lightning rod.

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