On Savants and Perception

From The Inner Savant

Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco, has seen similar transformations in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative brain disease that strikes people in their fifties and sixties. Some of these patients, he says, spontaneously develop both interest and skill in art and music. Brain-imaging studies have shown that most patients with frontotemporal dementia who develop skills have abnormally low blood flow or low metabolic activity in their left temporal lobe. Because language abilities are concentrated in the left side of the brain, these people gradually lose the ability to speak, read, and write. They also lose face recognition. Meanwhile, the right side of the brain, which supports visual and spatial processing, is better preserved.

“They really do lose the linguistic meaning of things,” says Miller, who believes Snyder’s ideas about latent abilities complement his own observations about frontotemporal dementia. “There’s a loss of higher-order processing that goes on in the anterior temporal lobe.” In particular, frontotemporal dementia damages the ventral stream, a brain region that is associated with naming objects. Patients with damage in this area can’t name what they’re looking at, but they can often paint it beautifully. Miller has also seen physiological similarities in the brains of autistic savants and patients with frontotemporal dementia. When he performed brain-imaging studies on an autistic savant artist who started drawing horses at 18 months, he saw abnormalities similar to those of artists with frontotemporal dementia: decreased blood flow and slowed neuronal firing in the left temporal lobe.

“The five colors make a man blind, the five tones make a man deaf” – Lao-Tzu

Clearly language and the playing of symbols (higher order processing) stops us from ever truly being here, right now. Now shut up and listen.

One Response to “On Savants and Perception”

  1. dan Says:

    Ah, the squishy grey stuff…so fascinating. have you read any Oliver Sacks?

    (btw, could you make your RSS feed full entries?)

Leave a Reply