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.