‘Acquired savant syndrome’ or ‘sudden genius’ probably does not exist

I saw this going viral: The Mystery of Sudden Genius, about a phenomenon in which otherwise ordinary people suddenly acquire savant or genius-like abilities later in life, usually following a traumatic injury or event:

In these cases, an individual suddenly becomes a savant, demonstrating incredible talent in a specific domain—typically music, art, calendar calculating, mathematical and number skills, or mechanical or spatial skills, as well as astounding memory—for which there appears to be no precedent in their earlier life experience. It may materialize after injury, disease, stroke, dementia, or assault. Acquired savant syndrome is extremely rare: 32 cases were identified as of a 2015 report. Current estimates are slightly higher—and cases surely exist that haven’t been captured in the literature.

I am skeptical, and the evidence presented in the article is weak. Taking a sudden interest in a hobby is not demonstrative or evidence of enhanced cognitive abilities. To prove this is a very high hurdle, which the author and researchers have not come anywhere close to clearing. The whole thing reeks of being a pseudoscience or irreproducible. The ‘replication crisis‘ is a thing for a reason. The small sample sizes, the absence of any controlled settings or specifics, and irreproducibility by independent researchers are major red flags.

The fact academics and the media uncritically accept results which confirm that which they want to believe is true, not what is supported by the evidence or meets the bar for successful reproducibility, is why it’s hard to take any of the social sciences seriously. Even if there are some statistically robust, reproducible results, there is so much chaff I am disinclined to trust any of it. How many public intellectual careers have been borne over the past half century from social scientists conceiving entire narratives or theories (e.g. ‘growth mindset’) around some weak results, and then parlaying this to a career of books, podcasts, consulting, and public appearances?

Back to the article at hand, many of these case studies read like hallucinations or mania. One such ‘savant’ is Diana de Avila, who suddenly became a prolific painter after being treated at a hospital for vertigo:

Then the compulsion took over. She created five or six pieces a day, day after day. She’d get up in the middle of the night to make art. She played music, sometimes the same song on repeat, to quiet her manic mind. After a couple of months, she was exhausted. She did some research and found someone who might know what on earth was going on. “I wrote, ‘You don’t know me from Adam, but what’s happening to me?’”

Her description of seeing bright colors is also shared by witnesses of UFO sightings or alien abductions, like of the abductee seeing flashes of light from what is believed to originate from a spaceship. These case studies have as much credibility as alien abductions, remote viewing, out-of-body experiences or other paranormal experiences, which are all subjective and self-reported, as opposed to something that can be measured or tested in a lab or reproduced by independent researchers, which is the hallmark of a science.

Some hobbies are less ‘g-loaded’ than others, like drawing, compared to math, writing, or chess. Most of these ‘savants’ develop a sudden interest in activities that are subjective, such as painting, language, or music, in which rank-ordered ability or quality is hard or impossible to ascertain. Or they claim to be able to ‘hear’ colors or ‘see’ sounds, which is similar to synesthesia, so it’s not like a new label or diagnosis is needed for an already well-established phenomenon.

Quantity tends to take precedence over quality, like the production of many paintings or many musical compositions. There is scant to no evidence that these savants are any good, only that they produce a lot of work and are obsessed or engrossed by their new hobby. Are any Avila’s paintings acclaimed in the eyes of critics or the public? Who knows. That is not relevant, I guess. Writing a best-seller is demonstrative of quantifiable, meritorious skill. Or winning a chess tournament or learning an advanced math concept. But scribbling some drawings or having an out-of-body experience? Not so much.

Confirmation bias can explain the existence of savant syndrome or acquired genius: the vast majority of traumatized people do not subsequently develop new hobbies or heightened senses, but it’s statistically probable some will by chance alone. Or confusing correlation with causation.

It can also be explained by people who have autism or other disabilities having enough free time to hone in on a certain hobby obsessively, such that to outsiders it seems like they are a savant, not that they possess special mental abilities. This can explain the link between autism and savant-syndrome, as obsessiveness is a symptom of autism. For example, the ability to memorize bus routes can be explained by boredom, a lack of socialization, and a lot of free time. It does not take a genius to do this. Prisoners who are plotting an escape are known to memorize the minute details of their surroundings, as they have nothing else to do, combined with as strong of an incentive as any, that being the instinctual desire for freedom.

Kim Peek, who died in 2009, is an outlier, as he demonstrably possessed superior cognitive ability, such as eidetic memory and recall. Photographic memory, unlike painting, is something that can be objectively tested and quantified. His brain was deformed, having macrocephaly and lacking a corpus callosum, which in theory could have accounted for his outlier abilities. Nor was he actually retarded, contrary to popular belief, but his tested IQ was around 87, not sub-70 as is indicative of retardation. But none of these acquired savants are anywhere close to him in ability. This suggests that savants can exist, but taking up calligraphy after an accident does not a savant make.

Regarding one savant, George Logothetis, who had bacterial meningitis and fell into a coma at the age of two:

From a young age, Logothetis took an interest in his father’s work, devouring the weekly shipping newsletter and analyzing the market. He soon took the helm, becoming CEO by age 19. He remembers every number, every quantity, every measurement, every price that passed through his ledger. “The East Cape, a ship we delivered in 1993, was 482,000 cubic feet, built in 1975, and leased for $416,000 a month,” Logothetis says. “It doesn’t require effort to retrieve this. It’s just there.”

However, the article buries the lede: His IQ is 149, which almost certainly explains his savant-like abilities more so than having acquired it after the infection. In other words, he was born with it:

Logothetis’s IQ was tested early and consistently by his parents, given their concerns about his cognitive health and recovery from meningitis. The score, says Logothetis, was 149—placing him in the 99.9th percentile of test-takers. Only 1 in 1,900 individuals score in this range. Logothetis’s exceedingly high cognitive ability no doubt contributes to his professional success. But his savant-like recall likely isn’t explained by high aptitude alone.

Some people with high IQs can seem like they possess superpowers to outsiders–like the ability to speed-read, memorize a lot of digits of pi, or master a difficult mathematics concept–in much the same way a basketball player can dunk a basketball even though average people cannot. There is nothing magical or supernatural about it: it’s simply talent plus practice, with each being necessary. Reported ‘savant-like recall’ IS explained by IQ: recall is a component of a full-scale IQ test, such as forward and backward digit span. No savant syndrome needed.

Overall, aside from Kim Peek, the majority of these alleged savants seem like disabled or autistic-spectrum (neuro-atypical) people who have a lot of free time to work on something obsessively, not that they possess special abilities. Up to 85% of adults with autism are unemployed. Disabled people are forbidden from working to remain eligible for benefits. The only superpower is a lot of free time. It’s inspiring to read stories of people who overcame trauma and found success or a calling later in life, however ‘success’ is defined, but trying to attribute this to some underlying physiological process (e.g ‘rewiring’ of the brain) where there is likely none or the evidence profoundly lacking, is junk science, sorry to say.

This is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater: A recent story went viral of an 18-year-old Canadian, Emily Nash, who is one of a handful of individuals in the world with verifiable autobiographical memory. Along with Kim Peek, this shows it’s possible for individuals to possess preternatural abilities that existing neuroscience is unable to explain, so I don’t want to reject the concept or existence of savants altogether. But care should be taken to avoid lumping the obsessive hobbyists or the mentally ill with individuals who have some demonstrable exceptional mental abilities.