SAVANT SYNDROME; EXPLAINED
Dr. Shaun Murphy from the 2017 U.S. medical drama- The Good Doctor might have been the first case of ‘savant syndrome’ that I have been exposed to (obviously, it is fictional) which directly mentioned the term. Looking back, I think we might have come across a couple of them, even without recognizing them. For starters, let’s ask ourselves what savant syndrome is.
Savant syndrome is basically a condition in which people with some mental disabilities demonstrate above-average intellectual capability in particular areas. This particular area is, most of the time, at least indirectly associated with memory. This might not sound like a big deal at first. But the more we learn about this condition, the more fascinated we will be.
The prevalence of this condition is very low (almost one in a million). And half of the people identified as savants are autistic- people who can hardly keep up with a normal social interaction. To make this clear, let me introduce you to Dr. Shaun Murphy. Again, this is a fictional character. But have been portrayed so realistically with medical accuracy. And we don’t have such detailed case studies of the condition as it is so rare. Dr. Shaun Murphy is autistic- finds social situations awkward, rarely recognizes non-verbal cues and signals, and has a tendency to over-organize. In many ways, he is a typical autistic individual. But he also has savant syndrome- has almost 100% retention rate, extraordinary logic, and observational skills. Being a doctor himself, he can analyze medical images and patterns with amazing accuracy, he can cluster together the known symptoms for perfect diagnosis, and mentally visualize certain scenarios to predict the outcomes of particular medical decisions. This might be a bit exaggerated for dramatic reasons. Still, the gist of the content is the same.
There are known cases of people with savant syndrome who can just peek at a gigantic landscape for a minute and then replicate the same exact image into a canvas. There are savants with unbelievable musical mastery that they can reproduce every note they have heard on an instrument without the help of an instructor. The most common of the savants are called ‘calendrical savants’. Calendrical savants are precise when it comes to identifying the days of the week and retrieving associated memory of any given day. They are often called human calendars- for eg; if you ask someone with the condition ‘what happened on the 25th of February, 2019?’, they would answer precisely with details to the colour of the bulb lit in the room they were sitting in.
But, how could this be? A person with a severe mental disability being a genius in a particular intellectual task. Well, there are no certain answers to this to date. Some believe that all humans are capable of this, just that people with certain disabilities compensate it by focusing more on these aspects. And some others are of the opinion that this is purely a function of brain impairment or malfunction. Providing evidence to these views, researches could replicate savant-like brain activity by impairing the anterior part of the temporal lobe.
The initial term used to describe these individuals were ‘idiot savants’, which was later retracted as there were also cases of savants who didn’t display autistic symptoms, still, the majority of them are autistic. If you are a mallu, you probably recognize the name- Sukesh Kuttan from Idea Star singer, an extraordinary singer in the autism spectrum; A gentle reminder of how much more there is to know about the human brain.