Savant or genial calculation?

All of us are spellbound by the news of all these geniuses and their extraordinary feats – whether in mathematics, in arts, music – and those queer performances that seem to defy logic.

Many of them happen to be children and adolescents who are endowed with capabilities beyond our understanding. We have heard of those individuals who can, in a fraction of a second, give you the right answer to puzzles like 9 to the power of 20; some would play a piece of music after listening to it only once; another one would rewrite all the digits in the calculation of the mathematical PI to thousands of places after the decimal after looking at the answer only once, which demonstrates that he has memorized thousands of digits in the correct order.

To the majority of us, ordinary mortals, all this is baffling. And we have come to look upon all these geniuses as superbly gifted. However, as neuroscience progresses and more and more techniques to investigate how the brain functions are made available, like fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), and PET (Positron Emission Tomography), more research is being undertaken to look into these super beings.

A first impression that emerges from a perusal of these experiments and observations is that ordinary beings, like most of us, are not so ordinary. It seems we are gifted to be able to go about our normal daily activities with an extreme facility; we can in a day go for a walk in the early morning, come home, have a bath, take our breakfast and go out again to work, hobnobbing with other colleagues, solve our problems, go shopping before coming back home to carry out our family activities which include so many other things, besides attending to our emotional needs.

It is quite possible that these daily activities are being done so ritual-like that we fail to appreciate our own capabilities. In fact the extraordinary conclusion that we may draw is that we are able to indulge in so many varied activities so effortlessly that we come to look upon our life as ordinary, the more so as the majority of us can do all that.

Hence when an individual comes along and tells you in a fraction of a second the day on which you were born just by being told the date, you are baffled. In fact these geniuses do use their brains; they have a method of thinking and solving a problem by using so many mnemonics but they do it so fast that they surpass us.

Nowadays, it is becoming clearer that our mental activities depend a lot on the number of nervous connections that a neuron (a cell in the nervous system including the brain) has with surrounding neurons; the more they are connected the more transactions they can perform and the quicker problems are solved. The persons so gifted can also think differently. There is a sort of multiplier system involved in the neurons that work in an exponential procedure.

Take the case of Einstein: his brain was kept for posterity to be analysed and investigated. It has been found that his cortex, which is the outer layer that encloses all the grey matter of the brain, was only 2.2 millimetres thick — ours is 2.8 mm — which means that his neurons were overcrowded as compared to ours. This would suggest that the number of dendrites (branches) from one neuron to the neighbouring ones was increased, so he could think and act differently. Even the breadth between his two ‘parietal lobes’ (left and right) was bigger than that of ordinary human beings. However, such beings do excel in one field, otherwise they may be just as ordinary as all of us.

On a visit to the USA, Einstein was questioned almost out of the blue about the speed of sound. He was baffled and could not give an answer. Issac Newton, brainier than most of us, also could not give the correct answer. It seems the autocratic, but brainy, scientist loved cats. In a story by a “County Parson,” the invention of the cat flap is attributed to Newton. It goes on to say that Newton foolishly made a large hole for the mother cat and a small one for her kittens, not realizing the kittens would follow the mother through the large one. The veracity of the story is however debated.

It is becoming clearer nowadays that the view must be retained that these prodigies are prodigies because they have a defect; they, unlike most of us, cannot do all the things that we indulge in so effortlessly. In fact, modern medical authorities, while looking at the lives of Einstein and Newton, believe that they carried a trait of autism. Great chess players are also said to be so afflicted.

One therefore wonders whether an ordinary human being living in a world inhabited only by geniuses would not be looked upon and venerated as the super genius for being able to do so many things in a given day so effortlessly.

Look at autistic individuals: some can do complicated mathematics so easily yet they are unable to carry out ordinary tasks. There was a great music director who could not practice because he had a cerebro-vascular accident (‘congestion’) and was paralysed on one side, yet when he was brought to a concert he could stand up and direct the orchestra as the music played. From Holland there’s the case of Peter Hurkos, who fell from a height and sustained a head injury. He was later detected to have developed the faculty of predicting the immediate future. He went to USA where his talent was devoted to track down criminals. At the casino he could have made the house go bankrupt, but he did not want to use his talent dishonestly.

It is well known that a few great people of the past suffered from epilepsy. It is as if this infliction had developed their brain differently. It is well known medically that these individuals have an aura (a mental vision of something) well before they have their fits. Some religious people have used this power to enlighten their fellow human beings. Alexander The Great was an epileptic; he developed his character to lead other beings into adventures and conquests.

People who have a defect in their brain circuitry may turn out to have powers beyond the understanding of the majority of us. Now neuro scientists say that all of us can do feats that we never dreamt of. We only have to think differently and train our brain in a certain manner, to do mathematical problems in a faster and orderly manner. It appears that when the ‘fronto-temporal lobe’ of the brain activity is toned down by magnetic stimulation ordinary people can do genial feats. It’s as if by inhibiting everyday functions of some part of the brain, we can access the extraordinary capacity that lies dormant within us – specially in the less dominant cerebral hemisphere. Is it possible that those geniuses do lack some neural activities that they are deficient in something, that we, the common people are more complete in many ways than them?

Perhaps they need us to build a world in which they can flourish. And may be by themselves they would be nowhere.

 


* Published in print edition on 22 November 2013

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