Islands of Genius

Islands of Genius

Author: Darold A. Treffert


This book is all about savant syndrome, perhaps the most intriguing human phenomenon, whereby people with severe physical or mental disabilities paradoxically demonstrate incredible superhuman talents (page xiv). The author, perhaps the most foremost authority on this enigma, views savant syndrome, not as a beguiling condition, but as ‘a unique window into the brain’ which can potentially enable us to access our own dormant knowledge and hidden talents (pages xiv and 223). The book describes the causes and characteristic features of this phenomenal condition, exploring the potential mechanisms underlying it, and illustrating with examples of several compelling savants and their unimaginable skills. The book asserts that savant syndrome is ‘convincing proof of brain plasticity-the capacity of the brain to rewire and restructure itself after damage’ (page xviii).

By DmadeoOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

A key feature of the book is its exploration of the diverse causes and triggers of savant syndrome. The author understandably focuses on the most common cause, autism, but he emphasised that this only accounts for half of the cases (page 18). Indeed, the book points out that many cases are not congenital but acquired or accidental, usually emerging after traumatic head injury, frontotemporal dementia, stroke, or subarachnoid haemorrhage (pages 194-198). Even more puzzling is the category of sudden savants, those whose skills emerge unexpectedly and without any underlying neurological disorder (pages 204-211). It is interesting that many savants, congenital and acquired, have visual impairments, and the most frequent types the book discusses are retinopathy of immaturity, sept-optic dysplasia, and Leber congenital amaurosis (pages 21 and 68).

Autism. Hepinting on Flickr.

The author dedicated a major part of the book to reviewing the five major manifestations of savant skills. These are predominantly skills that reside in the right brain hemisphere, and they are almost always accompanied by a massive memory (pages 3 and 19-22). A savant skill that manifests very frequently is musical skill, and this is almost always accompanied by perfect pitch. The author examines this in many places in the book, along with two other common savant manifestations; obsessive artistic skills,which often emerge after just a single exposure to the art, and mathematical skill, particularly prime numbers and square roots (page 21). Calendar calculating, mechanical and spatial skills, foreign accent syndrome and hyperthymesia are less frequent but equally curious savant phenomena (pages 20 and 71-77). To illustrate this range of savant skills, the author gave detailed biographies of many contemporary savants such as musical savant Leslie Lemke; sculptor Alonzo Clemons; calendar calculator twins George and Charles Finn; memory mega-savant Kim Peek; time keeper and musical savant Ellen Boudreaux; hyperlexic Matt Savage; lightening calculator and synaesthete Daniel Tammet; and artist Stephen Wiltshire. He also related the stories of historical savants such ship modeller James Henry Pullen, and musical prodigy Thomas Bethune.


Mathematics. Robert Scarth on Flickr.

How do savant abilities develop? This is a question the author examined in meticulous detail, discussing several prevailing theories. One typical potential mechanism is eidetic imagery, whereby intense visual scenes persist in the savant’s imagination long the the object has been removed. Other suggested mechanisms are photographic memory, sensory deprivationcompensatory learning, and the extreme male brain (pages 36-44). The author’s favoured theory, however, is ‘paradoxical functional facilitation. This is a process, he speculates, which aids access to an ‘untapped reservoir of brain capacity’ (page xvi). He proposes that, via a three-stage process of rewiring, recruitment and release, the right brain hemisphere is, as it were, released from the ‘tyranny of the left hemisphere‘, and it unleashes its dormant potential (pages 24 and 53-54). This release, the book further argues, follows a predictable course, from enhanced literal memory through to improvisation, and eventually creativity (page 11). The book also advances three levels of increasing proficiency of savant expertise – splinter skills, talent, and prodigy (page 24-25).


Left brain, right brain. Mohit Tomar on Flickr.


Throughout the book, the author expressed his fascination at how savants seem to manifest genetic knowledge, defined as ‘the capacity to know or remember things we never learned’. As challenging as the idea sounds, the author argues that this is the most plausible explanation for how savants, without any prior exposure or training, innately understand the rules of their skills (pages 59-61 and xvii). He proposes that these genetic skills are transmitted hereditarily through epigenetics. He argues that we all have, buried deep within our right hemispheres, an ‘inner savant‘ brimming with genetic knowledge, and he recommended strategies to help us to tap our dormant right brain functions, which are ‘overshadowed by left brain activity’ (pages 217-218). He maintains that savant skills are proof that ‘we do not start life with a blank disk‘, and he supports this assertion with references to the research findings of Wilder Penfield, Michael Gazzaniga, Carl Jung, and Steven Pinker (pages 57-58). 


By, CC BY 4.0, Link
The book made many historical references to the origins of our understanding of savant syndrome and autism. The author traced the original description of savant syndrome to J. Langdon Down who, in 1887, was struck ‘by the paradox of deficiency and superiority occurring in the same individual’ (page 2). He also referred to Leo Kanner who described and refined the concept early infantile autism (page 3). The book also explored the portrayal of autism and savant syndrome in the arts, such as in the films Rain Man and The Miracle Worker


This book gives an insight into a curious phenomenon that reveals the seemingly limitless capacities of the human brain. The author meticulously related the stories of several savants, exploring their skills and proposing the likely underlying mechanisms. He made many recommendations on how best to nurture savant skills thereby alleviating their handicaps. Apart from a tendency to repeat his arguments, the prose is excellent and the writing very clear and passionate. The book has done a good job of bringing out of the shadows a very important side of human nature. It also highlights the potential, in all of us, of enhanced talents and memory, if we succeed in understanding the nature of savant skills.

Overall assessment

The book is an uplifting account of a poorly understood phenomenon. It is particularly relevant to healthcare where practitioners constantly encounter people with autism and other conditions which predispose to savant skills. The book emphasises the importance of identifying and nurturing such skills, and looking beyond physical disabilities. It is an excellent book and I recommend it to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, 2010
Number of chapters: 29
Number of pages: 302
ISBN: 978-1-84905-810-0
Rating: 5
Price: £25

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