How do prodigious savants know things they never learned? Maybe Carl Jung was right.
By Darold Treffert, MD
Savant Syndrome is a rare but remarkable condition in which persons with developmental disabilities, including but not limited to autistic disorder, have some spectacular “islands of genius” that stand in marked, jarring contrast to overall limitations. Skills most often exist in art, music, calendar calculating, lightning calculating and mechanical or spatial abilities. Whatever the special skill, it is always associated with massive memory; a memory exceedingly deep but very narrow within the area of the special skill.
Savant skills occur on a spectrum of ability ranging from splinter skills (such as memorizing license plates, sports trivia, birthdays etc.) to talented ( skills such as music or art that are quite conspicuous over against overall limitations) to prodigious (skills so remarkable that they would be termed at a ‘prodigy’ or ‘genius’ level if present in a non-disabled person). The prodigious savant represents a very high threshold group and there are probably less than 100 such known persons living worldwide at the present time. All the above is discussed in more detail on this website and in Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome (Treffert, 2006).
Prodigious savants, by definition, have limitations and handicap from autism or other central nervous system (CNS) disorders. Yet, in spite of these limitations, sometimes very severe, along with their spectacular skills, all prodigious savants have a startling, innate access to the “rules” of music, art, or mathematics, for example. These astonishing skills, abilities, knowledge and expertise, most often unexpectedly explode on the scene at an early age, in areas which the savants have neither studied nor have had any formal training. Hence prodigious savants innately and instinctively “know” things they have never learned.
Maybe Carl Jung was right. He described what he termed the “collective unconscious.” I call it genetic memory.
Leslie, who has never had a music lesson in his life, intuitively knows “the rules of music” according to professional musicians who have met him. George, and his brother Charles, instinctively know “the rules of mathematics” and can compute multi-digit prime numbers, never having studied them, yet cannot correctly multiply 6 x 5, for example. Alonzo, with no training in art, has access to the “rules of art” which allow him to duplicate three dimension animals from a two dimension photo; he also was able to just instinctively armature his horse figures in order to capture them in motion, a skill other artists train for years to master. A music professor says, about Matt, the 14 year prodigious savant now known around the world as the “Mozart of jazz”: “He seems to know things beyond his own existence.”
Someone once said about Mozart himself that he really didn’t ‘compose’ anything; he simply wrote down that which was already inscribed on his soul.
Which brings to mind Jay. He is not a savant but rather he was a prolific musical prodigy at age 3, and now is a musical genius in his teens. On a 60 Minutes program in 2006 the parents describe Jay beginning to draw little cellos on paper at age 2. Neither parent is musically inclined, and there never were any musical instruments, including a cello, in the home. At age 3Jay asked if he could have a cello of his own. The parents took him to a music store and to their astonishment, Jay picked up a miniature cello and began to play it! He had never seen a real cello before that day. After that experience he began to draw his miniature cellos placed on musical lines. By age 5 he had composed five symphonies. By age 15 he had written nine symphonies. His fifth symphony, which was 190 pages and 1328 bars in length, was professionally recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra for Sony records.
Jay says that the music just streams into his head at lightning speed, sometimes several symphonies running simultaneously at the same time. “My unconscious directs my conscious mind at a mile a minute,” he told the correspondent on that 60 Minutes program.
Where does Jay’s musical genius come from? How did he know about cellos, and how to play them at age 3 when never exposed to one before? How did he instinctively, at that age also “know” the rules of music when he had never studied or learned them?
I say he was able to do so because of genetic memory.
Jay is a genius and not a savant. But prodigious savants particularly (who by definition would be geniuses absent a disability) show similar access to the “rules”, or syntax or templates, of music, art, mathematics and calendar calculating, for example. They come with what I call ‘software, factory installed’. These savants have innate access to complex knowledge they clearly have never learned. They remember, genetically, things they have never learned. Some savants are able to compute prime numbers but cannot add or subtract the simplest of numbers and certainly cannot describe “how they do it”. So many savants, almost all of them in fact, instinctively know how to do calendar calculations, some without any significant prior access to calendars.
In 1945 A. Dudley Roberts reported the case of a woman, who was paralyzed from an encephalitic illness and who had no useful language and a measured IQ of 8. She could respond to calendar calculating questions with only grunts and gestures. But she was able to correctly identify the day of the week over a 30-year time span, communicating the correct answers in her primitive fashion.
Alonzo has never had an art lesson in his life, but as a child, following a severe fall with head injury he began sculpting animals with startling life like accuracy, often molding three dimensional animals from a two dimensional picture in a magazine. When it came time for him to armature his horses to capture them in motion, he did so immediately using techniques it often takes a long time for other sculptors to master.
Such innate access to the vast syntax and ‘rules’ of mathematics, music and even language in some instances, in the absence of any formal education and training, whether in geniuses, or savants, requires a third type of memory, a form of memory I call ‘genetic’ memory. The two other types of memory, cognitive/semantic and procedural/habit memory, are generally accepted. Genetic memory, sometimes called ancestral memory, is, in contrast, the genetic transmission of sophisticated knowledge itself, or at least the genetic transmission of the templates or ‘rules’ of such knowledge. One might refer to these as the musical chip, artistic chip, calendar-calculating chip or mathematical chip, for example.
This is not an entirely new concept. Brill, in 1940, quoted Dr. William Carpenter who, in comparing Zerah Colborn’s calculating powers to Mozart’s mastery of musical composition, defined these “congenital gifts” as “intuitions”. He wrote: “in each of the foregoing cases, then, we have a peculiar example of the possession of an extraordinary congenital aptitude for certain mental activity, which showed itself at so early a period as to exclude the notion that it could have been acquired by the experience of the individual. To such congenital gifts we give the name of intuitions; it can scarcely be questioned that like the instincts of the lower animals, they are the expressions of constitutional tendencies embodied in the organism of the individuals who manifest them.”
Carl Jung used the term “collective unconscious” to define his even broader concept of inherited traits, intuitions and collective wisdom of the past.
Wilder Penfield in his pioneering book, Mystery of the Mind, (1978) also refers to three types of memory. “Animals,” he states, “particularly show evidence of what might be called racial memory” (this would be the equivalent of ‘ancestral’ or ‘genetic memory’). He lists a second type of memory as that associated with ‘conditioned reflexes’ and a third type of memory as ‘experiential’. Those two latter types would be consistent with the terms commonly applied to “habit/procedural” memory, and “cognitive/semantic” memory.
In his book The Mind’s Past, Michael Gazzaniga (2000) states: “The baby does not learn trigonometry, but knows it; does not learn how to distinguish figure from ground but knows it; does not need to learn, but knows, when one object with mass hits another it will move the object”. He goes on to state: “the vast cerebral cortex is chock full of specialized systems ready, willing an able to be used for specific tasks. Moreover, the brain is built under tight genetic control.” And he then concludes: “As soon as the brain is built, it starts to express what it knows, what it comes with from the factory. And the brain comes loaded. The number of special devices that are in place and active is staggering. Everything from perceptual phenomena to intuitive physics to social exchange rules comes with the brain. Each device solves a different problem….the multitude of devices we have for doing what we do are factory installed; by the time we know about an action, the devices have already performed it. Gazzaniga then goes on to describe the specialized functions of the left and right hemisphere, using a multitude of split-brain testing results, and describes the important role of the “interpreter” that he feels the left hemisphere exercises. This “interpreter” is superimposed, then, on a massive amount of “factory installed” specialized systems, and knowledge.
Steven Pinker’s (2003) book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, focuses on “behavioral genetics” and what might be called hard-wired “human nature” examining the nature v. nurture arguments with respect to innate behavioral traits and aptitudes. Pinker’s “behavioral genetics” is an important, although controversial area of inquiry, but it differs what I am focusing on in this paper, something one might call “knowledge genetics.” Nevertheless his book, as indicated in by its title, refutes the ‘blank slate’ theories of human development.
Marshall Nirenberg, (1968) from the National Heart Institute, provides insight into the actual DNA/RNA mechanisms for what he calls “Genetic Memory” in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1968.
In a 2004 essay, Keith Chandler ascribes the savant’s ability to “to remember things they never learned,” to para-normal phenomena, and other writers have extended such abilities to include past life regression. My view of ‘genetic memory’ does extend to, nor include those phenomenon or mechanisms. My view of ‘genetic memory’ is more narrow, in fact, than even Jung’s “collective unconscious.” It is generally accepted that we can inherit certain physical characteristics such as height, weight, hair color, eye color and even propensity to certain diseases, for example. It is also generally accepted that certain behavioral traits, or even talents, can ‘run in families’ and we see evidence of that all around us. Genetic memory simply adds bits of inherited knowledge to that passed on mix of genes, chromosomes and cells instead than settling for the view that we start our lives with completely blank memory or knowledge disks to which we add only those life experiences and learning that occur after we are born.
Whether called ancestral, genetic or racial memory, or intuitions, or congential gifts, the concept of a genetic transmission of sophisticated knowledge, well beyond ‘instincts’ is necessary to explain how prodigious savants, for example, can know things they never learned.
We tend to think of ourselves as being born with a magnificent and intricate piece of organic machinery (“hardware”) we call the brain along with a massive, blank disk on which we then inscribe our memories as we experience events and ‘learn’. What we become then, it is commonly believed, is an accumulation of continuous learning and life experiences that are added one by one to memory. But the prodigious savant particularly suggests, to me at least, that he or she comes already programmed with a vast amount of innate skill, knowledge and expertise—factory installed ‘soft ware’ one might call it—which accounts for how the prodigious savant innately shows such mastery of some areas of skill and expertise often in the face of massive cognitive deficits and deficiencies. It is an area of memory function and learning worthy of much more exploration and study. I prefer the term ‘factory installed software’ to ‘hard-wired’ because the brain software, like all computer software, is continuously being modified by experience and innovation.
Some argue that what the savant ‘inherits’ are the music, art or mathematic ‘templates’ (as opposed to specific knowledge itself) or scaffolding on which they then can so quickly ‘learn’ or construct areas of expertise. That may be and I am open to that alternative. From my direct observations of prodigious savants, though, it seems to me they inherit actual knowledge itself, not just the templates or scaffolding or ‘rules’ on which they can so quickly build. Thus, for me, genetic memory is inherited knowledge.
Genetic memory—factory installed software—exists in the prodigious savant, and indeed, in my view, it exists in all of us. It is a huge reservoir of generally dormant knowledge and talent, distributed in all of us along the lines of the usual bell-shaped curve. But the special brain circuitry of the prodigious savant gives them access to that generally buried potential in spectacular fashion, permitting them to ‘know’ things they never learned.
In a similar vein, the ‘acquired savant’— ‘normal’ (neurotypical) persons in whom special abilities surface, sometimes at a spectacular level, following a head injury, stroke, or other CNS catastrophe, when no such skills were evident before the CNS insult– raise as well intriguing questions about buried potential within us all. These ‘acquired savant’ cases point toward brain re-wiring and brain plasticity as back-up resources in the case of brain injury or disease. Those cases, and the back-up mechanisms involved, are discussed in detail on the savant Web site and in Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome.
But the important question becomes, then, if such dormant potential embodied in genetic memory and acquired savant back-up systems exist in all of us, how can one access such buried potential without getting hit in the head by a baseball, having a stroke or experiencing fronto-temporal dementia, for example? That research is under way, but in its infancy. Betty Edwards (1999) book New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain describes one method. Meditation may be another. Some are using rTMS (rapid trans magnetic stimulation) as another route of investigation. And surely there are other methods as well.
The objective of this paper is not to document those efforts in detail. It is rather to describe how prodigious savants, by demonstrating that they know things they never learned, point us in the direction of further exploration of genetic memory. And I hope this paper also generates discussion on that topic and, hopefully, brings even more cases and instances to my attention that fortify the idea of the genetic inheritance of knowledge—factory installed software—within us all, and how we might access that hidden resource more usefully and easily.
- Brill A.A. Some peculiar manifestations of memory with special reference to lightning calculators J. Nerv. Ment. Dis. 92:709-26, 1940.
- Chandler, K People who remember things they never learned. Australian Journal of Parapsychology 4(1):2-31, 2004.
- Edwards, B. New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Tarcher, 1999.
- Gazzanigo, M.S. The Minds Past. University of California Press, 2000.
- Jung, C.G. Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (The Collected works of C.G. Jung Vol 1, Pt 1). Princeton University Press, 1969.
- Nirenberg, M. Genetic Memory. J. Am. Medical Asn, 205:1973-77 1968.
- Penfield, W. Mystery of the Mind. Princeton University Press, 1978.
- Pinker, S. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penquin, 2003.
- Roberts, A.D. Case History of a so called idiot savant. J. Genet. Psychology, 66:259-65, 1945.
- Treffert, D.A. Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome. iUniverse.com, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2006.
Back to Savant Articles
For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD
St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal Web site: http://www.daroldtreffert.com