(OT, but interesting) Fw: [drugwar] Savant for a Day

preston peet ptpeet at nyc.rr.com
Sun Jun 22 13:04:35 EDT 2003

----- Original Message -----
From: Tim Meehan
To: drugwar at mindvox.com
Cc: mapster at coollist.com
Sent: Sunday, June 22, 2003 10:28 AM
Subject: [drugwar] Savant for a Day


June 22, 2003
Savant for a Day

n a concrete basement at the University of Sydney, I sat in a chair waiting
have my brain altered by an electromagnetic pulse. My forehead was
connected, by
a series of electrodes, to a machine that looked something like an
beauty-salon hair dryer and was sunnily described to me as a ''Danish-made
transcranial magnetic stimulator.'' This was not just any old Danish-made
transcranial magnetic stimulator, however; this was the Medtronic Mag Pro,
it was being operated by Allan Snyder, one of the world's most remarkable
scientists of human cognition.

Nonetheless, the anticipation of electricity being beamed into my frontal
(and the consent form I had just signed) made me a bit nervous. Snyder found
that amusing. ''Oh, relax now!'' he said in the thick local accent he has
acquired since moving here from America. ''I've done it on myself a hundred
times. This is Australia. Legally, it's far more difficult to damage people
Australia than it is in the United States.''

''Damage?'' I groaned.

''You're not going to be damaged,'' he said. ''You're going to be

The Medtronic was originally developed as a tool for brain surgery: by
stimulating or slowing down specific regions of the brain, it allowed
doctors to
monitor the effects of surgery in real time. But it also produced, they
strange and unexpected effects on patients' mental functions: one minute
would lose the ability to speak, another minute they would speak easily but
would make odd linguistic errors and so on. A number of researchers started
look into the possibilities, but one in particular intrigued Snyder: that
undergoing transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, could suddenly exhibit
savant intelligence -- those isolated pockets of geniuslike mental ability
most often appear in autistic people.

Snyder is an impish presence, the very opposite of a venerable professor,
alone an internationally acclaimed scientist. There is a whiff of Woody
about him. Did I really want him, I couldn't help thinking, rewiring my hard
drive? ''We're not changing your brain physically,'' he assured me. ''You'll
only experience differences in your thought processes while you're actually
the machine.'' His assistant made a few final adjustments to the electrodes,
then, as everyone stood back, Snyder flicked the switch.

A series of electromagnetic pulses were being directed into my frontal
but I felt nothing. Snyder instructed me to draw something. ''What would you
like to draw?'' he said merrily. ''A cat? You like drawing cats? Cats it

I've seen a million cats in my life, so when I close my eyes, I have no
picturing them. But what does a cat really look like, and how do you put it
on paper? I gave it a try but came up with some sort of stick figure,
perhaps an

While I drew, Snyder continued his lecture. ''You could call this a
creativity-amplifying machine. It's a way of altering our states of mind
taking drugs like mescaline. You can make people see the raw data of the
as it is. As it is actually represented in the unconscious mind of all of

Two minutes after I started the first drawing, I was instructed to try
After another two minutes, I tried a third cat, and then in due course a
Then the experiment was over, and the electrodes were removed. I looked down
my work. The first felines were boxy and stiffly unconvincing. But after I
been subjected to about 10 minutes of transcranial magnetic stimulation,
tails had grown more vibrant, more nervous; their faces were personable and
convincing. They were even beginning to wear clever expressions.

I could hardly recognize them as my own drawings, though I had watched
render each one, in all its loving detail. Somehow over the course of a very
minutes, and with no additional instruction, I had gone from an incompetent
draftsman to a very impressive artist of the feline form.

Snyder looked over my shoulder. ''Well, how about that? Leonardo would be
envious.'' Or turning in his grave, I thought.

As remarkable as the cat-drawing lesson was, it was just a hint of Snyder's
and its implications for the study of cognition. He has used TMS dozens of
on university students, measuring its effect on their ability to draw, to
proofread and to perform difficult mathematical functions like identifying
numbers by sight. Hooked up to the machine, 40 percent of test subjects
exhibited extraordinary, and newfound, mental skills. That Snyder was able
induce these remarkable feats in a controlled, repeatable experiment is more
than just a great party trick; it's a breakthrough that may lead to a
in the way we understand the limits of our own intelligence -- and the
functioning of the human brain in general.

Snyder's work began with a curiosity about autism. Though there is little
consensus about what causes this baffling -- and increasingly common --
disorder, it seems safe to say that autistic people share certain qualities:
they tend to be rigid, mechanical and emotionally dissociated. They manifest
what autism's great ''discoverer,'' Leo Kanner, called ''an anxiously
desire for the preservation of sameness.'' And they tend to interpret
information in a hyperliteral way, using ''a kind of language which does not
seem intended to serve interpersonal communication.''

For example, Snyder says, when autistic test subjects came to see him at the
university, they would often get lost in the main quad. They might have been
there 10 times before, but each time the shadows were in slightly different
positions, and the difference overwhelmed their sense of place. ''They can't
grasp a general concept equivalent to the word 'quad,''' he explains. ''If
changes appearance even slightly, then they have to start all over again.''

Despite these limitations, a small subset of autistics, known as savants,
also perform superspecialized mental feats. Perhaps the most famous savant
Dustin Hoffman's character in ''Rain Man,'' who could count hundreds of
matchsticks at a glance. But the truth has often been even stranger: one
celebrated savant in turn-of-the-century Vienna could calculate the day of
week for every date since the birth of Christ. Other savants can speak
dozens of
languages without formally studying any of them or can reproduce music at
piano after only a single hearing. A savant studied by the English doctor J.
Langdon Down in 1887 had memorized every page of Gibbon's ''Decline and Fall
the Roman Empire.'' At the beginning of the 19th century, the splendidly
Gottfried Mind became famous all over Europe for the amazing pictures he
drew of

The conventional wisdom has long been that autistics' hyperliteral thought
processes were completely separate from the more contextual, nuanced, social
that most adults think, a different mental function altogether. And so, by
extension, the extraordinary skills of autistic savants have been regarded
flukes, almost inhuman feats that average minds could never achieve.

Snyder argues that all those assumptions -- about everything from the way
autistic savants behave down to the basic brain functions that cause them to
so -- are mistaken. Autistic thought isn't wholly incompatible with ordinary
thought, he says; it's just a variation on it, a more extreme example.

He first got the idea after reading ''The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a
in which Oliver Sacks explores the link between autism and a very specific
of brain damage. If neurological impairment is the cause of the autistic's
disabilities, Snyder wondered, could it be the cause of their geniuslike
abilities, too? By shutting down certain mental functions -- the capacity to
think conceptually, categorically, contextually -- did this impairment allow
other mental functions to flourish? Could brain damage, in short, actually
you brilliant?

In a 1999 paper called ''Is Integer Arithmetic Fundamental to Mental
The Mind's Secret Arithmetic,'' Snyder and D. John Mitchell considered the
example of an autistic infant, whose mind ''is not concept driven. . . . In
view such a mind can tap into lower level details not readily available to
introspection by normal individuals.'' These children, they wrote, seem ''to
aware of information in some raw or interim state prior to it being formed
the 'ultimate picture.''' Most astonishing, they went on, ''the mental
for performing lightning fast integer arithmetic calculations could be
within us

And so Snyder turned to TMS, in an attempt, as he says, ''to enhance the
by shutting off certain parts of it.''

''In a way, savants are the great enigma of today's neurology,'' says Prof.
Hirsch, director of the Functional M.R.I. Research Center at Columbia
University. ''They exist in all cultures and are a distinct type. Why? How?
don't know. Yet understanding the savant will help provide insight into the
whole neurophysiological underpinning of human behavior. That's why Snyder's
ideas are so exciting -- he's asking a really fundamental question, which no
has yet answered.''

If Snyder's suspicions are correct, in fact, and savants have not more
brainpower than the rest of us, but less, then it's even possible that
starts out life as a savant. Look, for example, at the ease with which
master complex languages -- a mysterious skill that seems to shut off
automatically around the age of 12. ''What we're doing is
Snyder tells me. ''We're saying that all these genius skills are easy,
natural. Our brain does them naturally. Like walking. Do you know how
walking is? It's much more difficult than drawing!''

To prove his point, he hooks me up to the Medtronic Mag Pro again and asks
me to
read the following lines:

A bird in the hand
is worth two in the
the bush

''A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,'' I say.

''Again,'' Snyder says, and smiles.

So once more: ''A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'' He makes me
repeat it five or six times, slowing me down until he has me reading each
with aching slowness.

Then he switches on the machine. He is trying to suppress those parts of my
brain responsible for thinking contextually, for making connections. Without
them, I will be able to see things more as an autistic might.

After five minutes of electric pulses, I read the card again. Only then do I
-- instantly -- that the card contains an extra ''the.''

On my own, I had been looking for patterns, trying to coax the words on the
into a coherent, familiar whole. But ''on the machine,'' he says, ''you
seeing what's actually there, not what you think is there.''

Snyder's theories are bolstered by the documented cases in which sudden
damage has produced savant abilities almost overnight. He cites the case of
Orlando Serrell, a 10-year-old street kid who was hit on the head and
immediately began doing calendrical calculations of baffling complexity.
argues that we all have Serrell's powers. ''We remember virtually
but we recall very little,'' Snyder explains. ''Now isn't that strange?
Everything is in there'' -- he taps the side of his head. ''Buried deep in
our brains are phenomenal abilities, which we lose for some reason as we
into 'normal' conceptual creatures. But what if we could reawaken them?''

Not all of Snyder's colleagues agree with his theories. Michael Howe, an
psychologist at the University of Exeter in Britain who died last year,
that savantism (and genius itself) was largely a result of incessant
and specialization. ''The main difference between experts and savants,'' he
told New Scientist magazine, ''is that savants do things which most of us
couldn't be bothered to get good at.''

Robert Hendren, executive director of the M.I.N.D. Institute at the
of California at Davis, brought that concept down to my level: ''If you drew
cats one after the other, they'd probably get better anyway.'' Like most
neuroscientists, he doubts that an electromagnetic pulse can stimulate the
into creativity: ''I'm not sure I see how TMS can actually alter the way
brain works. There's a chance that Snyder is right. But it's still very

Tomas Paus, an associate professor of neuroscience at McGill University, who
done extensive TMS research, is even more dubious. ''I don't believe TMS can
ever elicit complex behavior,'' he says.

But even skeptics like Hendren and Paus concede that by intensifying the
activity of one part of the brain while slowing or shutting down others, TMS
have remarkable effects. One of its most successful applications has been in
realm of psychiatry, where it is now used to dispel the ''inner voices'' of
schizophrenics, or to combat clinical depression without the damaging side
effects of electroshock therapy. (NeuroNetics, an Atlanta company, is
a TMS machine designed for just this purpose, which will probably be
released in
2006, pending F.D.A. approval.)

Meanwhile, researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders
Stroke found that TMS applied to the prefrontal cortex enabled subjects to
geometric puzzles much more rapidly. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, associate
of neurology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston (who,
his work at the Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation, has been one of
American visionaries of TMS), has even suggested that TMS could be used to
''prep'' students' minds before lessons.

None of this has gone unnoticed by canny entrepreneurs and visionary
Last year, the Brain Stimulation Laboratory at the Medical University of
Carolina received a $2 million government grant to develop a smaller TMS
that sleep-deprived soldiers could wear to keep them alert. ''It's not 'Star
Trek' at all,'' says Ziad Nahas, the laboratory's medical director. ''We've
a lot of the science on reversing cognitive deficiencies in people with
and sleep deficiencies. It works.'' If so, it could be a small leap to the
it boosts soldiers' cognitive functioning under normal circumstances.

And from there, how long before Americans are walking around with humming
antidepression helmets and math-enhancing ''hair dryers'' on their heads?
commercially available TMS machines be used to turn prosaic bank managers
amateur Rembrandts? Snyder has even contemplated video games that harness
specialized parts of the brain that are otherwise inaccessible.

''Anything is possible,'' says Prof. Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the
Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego
the noted author of ''Phantoms in the Brain.'' Snyder's theories have not
proved, he allows, but they are brilliantly suggestive: ''We're at the same
stage in brain research that biology was in the 19th century. We know almost
nothing about the mind. Snyder's theories may sound like 'The X-Files,' but
he's saying is completely plausible. Up to a point the brain is open,
and constantly changing. We might well be able to make it run in new ways.''
those who dismiss Snyder's theories out of hand, he shrugs: ''People are
blind to new ideas. Especially scientists.''

Bruce L. Miller, the A.W. and Mary Margaret Claussen distinguished professor
neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, is intrigued by
Snyder's experiments and his attempts to understand the physiological basis
cognition. But he points out that certain profound questions about
altered intelligence have not yet been answered. ''Do we really want these
abilities?'' he asks. ''Wouldn't it change my idea of myself if I could
paint amazing pictures?''

It probably would change people's ideas of themselves, to say nothing of
ideas of artistic talent. And though that prospect might discomfort Miller,
there are no doubt others whom it would thrill. But could anyone really
in advance, how their lives might be affected by instant creativity, instant
intelligence, instant happiness? Or by their disappearance, just as
once the TMS is switched off?

As he walked me out of the university -- a place so Gothic that it could be
Oxford, but for the intensely flowering jacaranda in one corner and the
Southern Hemisphere birds flitting about -- and toward the freeway back to
downtown Sydney, Snyder for his part radiated the most convincingly
optimism. ''Remember that old saw which says that we only use a small part
brain? Well, it might just be true. Except that now we can actually prove it
physically and experimentally. That has to be significant. I mean, it has to
doesn't it?''

We stopped for a moment by the side of the roaring traffic and looked up at
haze in the sky. Snyder's eyes contracted inquisitively as he pieced
the unfamiliar facts (brown smoke, just outside Sydney) and eased them into
familiar narrative framework (the forest fires that had been raging all
It was an effortless little bit of deductive, nonliteral thinking -- the
sort of
thing that human beings, unaided by TMS, do a thousand times a day. Then, in
instant, he switched back to our conversation and picked up his train of
thought. ''More important than that, we can change our own intelligence in
unexpected ways. Why would we not want to explore that?''

Lawrence Osborne is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

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