Is this going to fry my brain?
That was one of the first questions I had for Dr. Allan Snyder when I visited his lab at the University of Sydney in Australia. I had gone there to participate in an experiment with mind-numbing potential. Literally.
Snyder peered over the circular lenses of his glasses and smiled. "In Australia we have very strong mental health guards before we're allowed to do this on anybody," he said. "And … I don't want to hurt you at all."
In fact, I felt pretty safe knowing that Snyder himself and dozens of volunteers, including the famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, had gone through the same procedure — having magnetic pulses fired into targeted areas of their brains in an experiment designed to tap into the genius — like abilities that savants possess in art, music, and math.
The experiment actually inhibits some brain activity to afford — in its premise, at least — heightened access to the parts of our brains that collect raw information before the data is filtered into concepts.
"We have these severely brain-impaired people who are performing what seems ostensibly to be a miracle," Synder said, referring to the extraordinary powers displayed by savants who otherwise have difficulting coping with everyday life. "It must be something that's in us all, and we can't access. They can."
Amid the Gothic architecture of the University of Sydney in Australia, Snyder directs a place called The Centre for the Mind. Even in winter, the slightly-built American-born scientist begins each day with an Olympic-sized swim to get his own brain working, and he is a bit of an eccentric — some say a wizard.
But he has master's degrees from Harvard and M.I.T.; a Ph.D. from University College in London; is a winner of the prestigious Marconi International prize; and also has been named one of Australia's 10 most creative minds.
Before I underwent the experiment myself, I had some basic questions — especially, "How can a person heighten certain skills by by suppressing some brain activity instead of increasing it?" The simple answer to that is, our brains are always filtering information. Snyder wants to suppress that filtering process, so we can see things in a kind of raw state — as autistic savants do.
I've reported many stories where I witnessed the types of feats that Snyder is studying. In 1993, I met Kim Peek, a savant who was diagnosed as retarded, not autistic. Kim was one of the models for the savant that Dustin Hoffman played in the movie Rain Man. Despite an IQ measured at 69 and an inability to dress himself, he has read and remembered encyclopedic details and can execute astounding calculations in his head.
"If I was born November 1, 1945, what day of the week was that?" a woman asked him in a group we were taping.
"Thursday," he replied instantly. "And this year it's Monday and you retire in 2010, likewise on a Monday."
Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic savant I met in 1991, became world famous for his books of architectural illustrations, even though he was walled off emotionally by his autism and had no conceptual appreciation of the buildings he could draw-accurately and beautifully — from memory.