by Phyllis Wallbank MBE
I watched very recently a fine documentary on what used to be known as ‘Idiots Savants’. These are very exceptional children who never develop much beyond the age of about five, but who have one exceedingly extraordinary gift usually in drawing or music or a branch of mathematics.
The commentator said that it is not known how this phenomenon comes about. If we take the different stages as outlined by Lonergan and Montessori, I would suggest that the following is the answer.
The documentary showed Stephen Wiltshire who can look at a scene of great complexity of buildings for a very short time and then can reproduce it with all the details! The buildings were correct architecturally.
When they showed him working, one saw that he quickly kept his pen moving over the whole. He did not complete a building first and then another until the drawing was complete. He quickly sketched the whole scene and then finished off the details. He had taken it in as a whole like a photographical impression!
There was a boy shown playing the piano and when something complex was played just once to him, he could reproduce it immediately with all the chords and the same harmony. Yet the same boy was like a very small child in behavior although he was about eighteen or twenty years old.
I suggest that the reason lies in the brain functioning still as that of the under six years. Up to the age of six, young children absorb their environment. They absorb the culture, customs and language of their country and function as a child of the country where they are living and with the language of the people around them. It is understood now that it is the frontal lobes of the brain that are active in this way. The young child usually absorbs the language by the end of the third year, complete with the grammar!
After the age of six, normally these frontal lobes cease to function in this way , because the data collection and cause and effect parts of the brain take over instead. This is why an adult has to learn a language in a different way from the way the young child learns. The adult has more difficulty than the young child and the accent and intonation is never as perfect as the child who learns the language by absorbing it in this holistic way.
I suspect that part of the Savant’s brain has been damaged and so doesn’t develop but that the frontal lobes are undamaged and nature compensates by keeping this absorbent mind part of the brain active and receptive for the subject that interests him.
The Savant stays at Lonergan’s IMMEDIATE STAGE, and Montessori’s ABSORBENT MIND PERIOD OF SENSITIVITY. This part of the Savant’s brain which is active from birth to 6 is able to receive nourishment and to go on growing. This is why he is able to reproduce music, art or sometimes mathematical calculation of calendar dates in this wonderful photographic way.
This part of the brain continues to function just as the brain of the normal child at the earlier age, when there is this stage of absorption, where the whole is received, not section by section but more like a photograph. The language, the culture, the morality, the religion is taken in like a photograph of a scenerather than a part by part sketch.
It seems that this part of the Savant’s brain remains active as he gets older. Consequently this power of absorption of things as a whole doesn’t diminish whereas in all other people, this diminishes so that factual understanding may come about.
From the age of seven, usually items around are investigated studied and understood and questions become very important. This is Lonergan’s Mediate stage. This enables the child with normal development to understand the environment.
This step by step understanding the Savant seems unable to do but his frontal lobes seem to remain with the earlier activity undiminished. This, I believe, is why he now develops a greater capacity than normal in absorbing a scene for drawing or another is able to reproduce a piece of music. Immediately. complete with harmony. He still sees and hears as a complete whole whereas others at this later age have not the capacity to do this as the frontal lobes no longer work in the same way as they did before they were seven.
The Savant’s brain goes on with this earlier sensitivity developing where his interest lies, and so he is able to draw and play music brilliantly as a whole. He takes in aerial views and draws them, whereas we have to take each section analytically as that is the normal stage of brain development at the later age.
When the Savant’s brain retains the earlier stage of absorption and goes on being active, we are lost in wonder at this strange and fine ability produced within someone who otherwise functions at a low level of understanding.
Lonergan’s Immediate stage has never been left by the Savant.