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Savants: Charting 'islands of genius'

By David Martin
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FOND DU LAC, Wisconsin (CNN) -- Forty-four years after starting work at a children's psychiatric ward in Wisconsin, Dr. Darold Treffert still struggles to explain how the human brain is capable of producing the remarkable feats he witnessed there.

One boy had memorized Milwaukee's bus schedule and could say where all the buses were at any moment in the day. Another could put together complicated puzzles without hesitation -- even if the pieces were upside down. A third boy could list world events that happened on any given day.

Treffert came to realize these boys have savant syndrome, and thus began a lifelong quest to understand how people with sometimes severe mental disabilities could exhibit what he calls "islands of genius."

Treffert says a savant's brilliance generally falls into a single category: lightning-fast math skills or calendar calculating or spatial skills or near picture-perfect memory or musical ability.

Such dazzling mental skills defy easy explanation. (Watch the mystery of savants -- 3:38)

"I have come to the conclusion that until we can explain the savant we can't explain ourselves," said Treffert, often considered the world's leading expert on savants.

Treffert, an adviser on the movie "Rain Man," serves as the unofficial arbiter of who qualifies as a "prodigious savant" -- possessing skills that would dazzle even without a disability. There are only about 100 recognized prodigious savants in the world.

Jazz pianist Matt Savage is one of them. The home-schooled New Hampshire teenager was diagnosed with autism as a child and did not like to be exposed to any noise until he was 6. Audio therapy and a toy piano unlocked his gifts.

"Our house had been completely quiet," Matt's mother, Diane, said. "No music. No sound. And then my husband and I heard 'London Bridge' being played perfectly down in the playroom. We looked at each other. Matt had just started playing: from nothing to playing perfectly."

Matt, now 14, releases his seventh album on his parents' record label this month. Even he does not understand how he is able to play as well as does, improvising effortlessly on the piano.

"It kind of transfers from the brain to the fingers. It goes through your body. That's how it feels," Matt said.

Stephen Wiltshire is another prodigious savant. His genius is the ability to see something once and draw it in exquisite detail -- even something as complicated as a city skyline. (Watch brain scans look for the secrets of genius -- 2:05)

George Widener, too, is a prodigious savant. Widener says he has been diagnosed with a mild form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. He knows without thinking the day of the week for any year in the past or future. He now uses these calendar skills to produce critically acclaimed artwork, combining his love of numbers and calendars with an astonishing memory of days and dates in history.

Listening to Widener is like flipping through a stream-of-consciousness almanac:

"June 7th, that was the date Robert the Bruce died in 1329. He was the first king of Scotland. That was a Wednesday. I remember reading Daniel Boone, 1769, started a survey on June 7th in Kentucky ... King Louis the 14th became king, 1654. That was a Wednesday."

Orlando Serrell did not possess any special skills until he was struck in the head by a baseball when he was 10. He has remembered where he was and what he was doing almost every day since.

Serrell is what Treffert calls an "acquired savant," someone who exhibits savant skills after suffering a head injury or a stroke to the left hemisphere of the brain. Treffert believes the brain injury somehow frees acquired savants from the language and logic that rules our everyday lives. (Listen to a savant's extraordinary musical gift)

"We tend to think of ourselves as having this blank disc in the marvelous piece of equipment called the brain, and what we become is everything we put on this disc. And I'm saying there is much more to us. That we come with software," Treffert says.

In short, Treffert says, there is genius in all of us. How to unlock that genius remains a mystery.

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Dr. Darold Treffert says the genius of savants is difficult to fully explain.


• Gallery: Genius artwork
• Audio slide show: Geniuses
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