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Not With The Band: What About These Musical Savants?


Leslie Lemke

Meet Leslie Lemke, born with glaucoma, cerebral palsy and brain damage, abandoned at birth and adopted by a nurse…. Despite an extremely difficult beginning – he was diagnosed with autism, was severely disabled, blind and could not walk before the age of 15 – he was found playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 when he was 16, without having taken any music lesson…. It’s an old story and an incredible one, how do you explain this? Leslie Lemke became a musical virtuoso playing all styles of music, even singing whereas he was incapable of speaking. Other similar examples have existed during history, such as other musical prodigy, Blind Tom Wiggins, another autistic guy (although he lived before the disease was discovered) with an extraordinary innate musical talent. There are also examples of people with innate talents for other forms of arts, and we called them ‘savants’ without really understanding what’s going on.

A few days ago, Scientific American published an article about these savants, by psychiatrist Darold Treffert, and he came up with the term ‘genetic memory’ to explain the phenomenon… but wait a minute, is it possible that our genes have memory? ‘Genetic memory, simply put, is complex abilities and actual sophisticated knowledge inherited along with other more typical and commonly accepted physical and behavioral characteristics,’ writes Treffert. It is what Carl Jung called the ‘collective unconscious.’

However, we know so little about the brain, especially, we understand so little when it comes to execute an action: ‘the multitude of devices we have for doing what we do are factory installed; by the time we know about an action, the devices have already performed it,’ writes Michael Gazzaniga in his book ‘The Mind’s Past’. Similarly, in his book ‘Free Will’, Sam Harris writes about a lot of experiments which tend to demonstrate that some moments before you are aware of what you will do next, your brain has already determined what you will do.’ It seems crazy but the mind has a mind of its own….

The idea that, the brain is already hard-wired with innate abilities at birth, is more and more popular among neurobiologists. But would this be due to genetics? Would we inherit knowledge from our ancestors? Some kind of explanation is necessary to explain these savants who come already programmed with skills or knowledge. Similarly, some animals know how to do a lot of things without learning them (birds can sing, butterfly know when and where to migrate), and Treffert reaches the conclusion that savants are examples of genetic inheritance of instructions and knowledge that precedes learning.

Genetic memory? I have always been really skeptical of all these notions, although I have of course no expertise and no alternative explanation to bring. But he doesn’t explain why it is so common among autistic people, actually a lot of of autistic kids show exceptional musical talents. This study done by researchers Dr Pamela Heaton and Dr Francesca Happe at the University of London, demonstrated that ‘autistic children can be highly analytical listeners and are able to access musical details more readily than typically developing children.’ One in ten people with autism have savantism, and most savants are either autistic or have other developmental disorder. Plus, most musical savants are blind and have perfect pitch. Why? We don’t know!

However, some studies suggest an unusual focus of the brain on music (or other form of art) from these children and a very rapid learning process, which nevertheless disadvantage them in many other areas. It is a trade-off between memory and meaning as this article suggests, and it also may be due to a left-brain damage/right brain compensation… studies show that patients with degeneration in very specific regions on the left side of the brain not only have mental problems but suddenly express interest and skills in art and music! If Treffert thinks that savants have innate talent due to genetic memory, other scientists such as Scott Barry Kaufman (Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania) has proposed that savants have learned their amazing aptitude as ‘their learning operated implicitly, facilitated by their unique brain wiring.’ For musical savants, music ‘becomes their main source of communication’ and their amazing ability ‘can be explained by the same powerful learning and motivational mechanisms that the rest of us use to make sense of our world,’ writes Scott Barry Kaufman.

There is still so much we don’t know about the brain and its functioning that the next centuries are gonna be neurobiologists’ reign.

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