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.
Here's the difference. We might appreciate a great architectural work as a masterpiece of human achievement, functioning, for example, as a center for art or commerce. To an autistic savant, Snyder says, the same building is essentially a collection of components and objects — raw data with no particular meaning.
"These are people who are hyper-literal," Snyder said. "They see the world, they see the shading, they see the details in this world that we bypass and we're never aware of. But of course, they pay often a heavy price for that. They don't have the concepts.
They don't have the meaning."
The question that Snyder studies is: can we unlock that same potential in our own brains without paying the price?
To conduct his experiments, he uses a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS.
"I'm using artificial means, in this case magnetic pulses to create virtual lesions — artificial brain damage — in a way that I can switch it on and off and have you display savant skills," Snyder said.
The "artifical" damage isn't permanent. Snyder's technique has been safely applied medically to treat depression and schizophrenia by using the pulses to temporarily suppress activity in some areas of the brain.
My brain, typically, has developed prejudices of which I'm not aware, Snyder told me as we entered the small room where he conducts his experiments.
"You're blinded by your expertise. You know, you do something. It's routine. You have a way of thinking about something, and yet you've forgotten why. In a sense, we're very prejudiced."
To illustrate his point, Snyder directed me to read lines that came across the screen like flash cards.
I thought I was reading the lines perfectly. After all, that's part of my training as a broadcast reporter. But I was completely unaware of the detail that I was omitting.
In a number of the sentences, Snyder added additional words. For instance, there were two "the's" in the card that read: "When in Rome do as the the Romans do."
I never even registered the second "the," or the additional words that were planted on the other flash cards. My mind identified a familiar concept — in this case, a cliché — and filtered out what didn't fit.
That's one way in which our brains process information.
"Our awareness seems to be that of an executive," Snyder said. "We get the executive statement, the executive summary. We don't get the back room deliberations."
A savant like Kim Peek may not have understood the meaning of the cliché, but he probably would not have missed the extra words I overlooked because of the literal way in which he absorbs information. Psychiatrist Daniel Christensen of Salt Lake City showed me that one possible reason for the manner in which Kim retains detail is that Kim's brain is lacking an important tissue bridge called the corpus callosum, which links the right and left hemispheres of the brain. One of the functions of the corpus callosum is to filter raw information. Kim, it is estimated, retains 95 per cent of the raw information he reads in one sitting.
With his experiment, Snyder wanted to improve my ability to look at the raw data. When Snyder's assistant marked a target with a pen on my blue skullcap, it was used to aim the magnetic pulses at the left fronto-temporal lobe of my brain, where (among many other things) I form concepts.
Would I be able to identify raw details more clearly — or reproduce the photos he showed me with more accurate drawings — when it was over?
Synder says about 40 percent of his volunteer subjects show pronounced effects. "They say they're much more aware of the details around the room. One person said that he had never before wanted to write, but suddenly he now wants to write compositions. In other words he was able to see the world in a kind of descriptive way."
I didn't become a da Vinci, but I did produce typical and interesting results. When I drew a dog before the experiment, I used the same techniques I learned in elementary school — assembling patterns of circles and ovals to represent the body and its parts.
After the pulses, I drew a dog in free-form style, imposing a better sense of motion on the figure. I started by drawing tufts on its back and tail — not the outline patterns I had been taught — but I was unaware until I looked at the videotapes that I had changed my method.
When Snyder published the results of his long-term experiments (in the Journal of Integrative Neuroscience), he reported that that was how many of the participants had responded. Compared to the "before" drawings, the "after" drawings — following 10, and then 15 minutes of pulses — showed stylistic changes that sometimes were radically different.
"I think this is the best indicator of how people break away from their mindset," Snyder said.
Skeptics say this could simply be the result of practice or repetition — even with savants. Snyder cites case studies where sudden brain damage has resulted in unusual change.
"There's another person we've worked with who got hit on the head with a baseball when he was 9 years old," Snyder said. "He became very quickly … a calendar calculator." (He was instantly able to associate days of the week with specific calendar dates). "How can this be due to practice?"
Snyder also cites a landmark study by Bruce Miller, now of the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Miller found that some patients began having extraordinary creative impulses even as some areas of their brains were deteriorating because of disease. The areas that showed damage in brain scans controlled language and behavior — where we label things. And as those areas were disabled, the creative side of the brain — including the frontal temporal lobes — gained more influence.
The condition is called frontotemporal dementia, and through Miller, I met one of its victims, Jack Friedman. As the damage to his brain progressed, Friedman changed from a conservative businessman to a free-spirited artist whose whimsical works sold for hundred of dollars each at California galleries. At the same time, his ability to function in everyday life declined drastically.
Another journalist who participated in Snyder's experiment reported showing much more improvement than I did in his drawing skills. Describing his progress in drawing cats, New York Times reporter Lawrence Osborne wrote, "I could hardly recognize them as my own drawings?Somehow I had gone from an incompetent draftsman to a very impressive artist."
When asked what benefits may be possible from his studies, Snyder replied, "I don't want to be able to draw like a savant. But what I would like to do is see the world just for a moment the way it really is. I'd like to be able to switch off the mind sets, switch off the prejudices if you like … make new connections.
"Humans are very good at concepts. They're very bad at seeing the world in a new light. If I can switch off the part of your mind that has that mind set … and allow you to just momentarily to look at the world in a new light, then you might see a different way to connect the dots."
I was disappointed that I didn't even approach that type of creative enhancement, but the experiment did change the way I think about things. What you come away with is a lesson in perception — the idea that your brain can deceive you, or hide things from you, or make you see things as you expect to see them, not as they are.