Adam Neal – Extraordinary Piece of ASS: Acquired Savant Syndrome

It has been wondered, begged, and mused silently and aloud to the point of platitude:

Why do bad things happen to good people?

"Triumph" by Francesco Longenecker
“Triumph” by Francesco Longenecker

A book of the title When Bad Things Happen to Good People was written by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, who explored his fractured spiritual foundation upon the loss of his son. Kushner’s three-year-old son spent his short life struggling with an incredibly rare disease called “Progeria,” which ages and deteriorates the physical body at an exponentially quicker rate than normal.

Why did his son, the son of a rabbi who had devoted his life to G-d, suffer such a fate? His conclusion — perhaps G-d can not be everywhere at once, and it is that potential absence that allows human beings to thrive or fail in “free will.” If G-d could be everywhere for humans at once, we would embody a less than “free” existence, which runs contrary to the plan G-d enacted for us when he allowed us to choose reverence or selfishness — in other words, between a life of service to the universe or a life of service to ourselves.

Disease, oppression, disability, wrong-place-wrong-time, accidents…

Or in the world of the paranormal:

Haunting, possession, energy attachment…

The list of “bad” things that can happen to us as human beings is infinite. But what about when something “bad” happens to us that results in something extraordinarily “good?”

We understand this anomaly of causation in a manner distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. When something “bad” happens to an animal that results in a positive outcome, the animal only recognizes the current state of being, not the meaning behind the sequence of events. Threatened versus safe, calm versus escape. A zebra is being chased by a lion and falls into a ravine, breaking a leg. The lion skulks away, unwilling to risk the fall for the uncertain opportunity to prey upon the zebra. The zebra struggles to walk, suffering with each step, but it lives. It can not understand that the fall into the ravine saved its life, only that now it is in pain.

A man runs toward the train, trips and falls on an errant plastic bag, twisting his ankle. The man curses and yelps in pain as he watches his train, the last of the evening, leave without him. He calls a cab, pays three times the fare he spent on the missed train, and gets home hours later than he planned. He puts on the news and sees that his train was the subject of a mass shooting. A mentally unstable homeless man snuck on board, having stolen a gun that afternoon from a murdered gang member.

All of a sudden, the man recognizes that the offending bag — the errant item left by some careless litterer — had potentially saved his life. His situation goes from one of a curse to a blessing.

This blessing in disguise is no more apparent than in cases of Acquired Savant Syndrome, wherein seemingly “bad” events have extraordinarily “good,” permanent consequences.

Savants have been around as long as human beings have existed, almost always in the form of the developmentally disabled. Most often exhibited by those determined to be “Autistic,” savants have talents so far outside the range of normalcy that their condition is still not understood today. There is a standard distinction between savants into two categories:  Autistic Savants and Acquired or Prodigious Savants. Similarly, in the realm of the paranormal, there are those who are born with strong psychic ability and those who acquire psychic abilities following a life-altering event.

Orlando Serrell was an average 10-year-old boy in 1978, playing baseball with his friends on a sunny day. While running during a play, Serrell was accidentally struck in the side of the head with the ball, causing him to fall over and pass out. He awoke moments later, his head hurting, but otherwise feeling fine. He and his friends were dumbstruck about the accident but glad he seemed to be okay. Serrell was afraid to worry his parents about his accident, especially since he had no further pain, so he kept it a secret.

Soon afterward, he began to notice he had a strange ability to remember what the weather was like on specific days. Then he realized he could also say which day of the week it was on various dates. Now in his forties, Serrell has traveled the world as a modern superhuman, a living example of the potential human beings carry within our minds. Well, within our brains, a scientist would tell you. But Serrell’s unusual savant abilities apparently connect the worlds of data and visualization. He has “calendar counter” ability, a savant skill documented by several other Autistic and Acquired Savants, as well as “weather recall” ability, a skill which requires a level of visualization but may also be explained away as a reiteration of previously recorded data.

"Pinned" by Zak Smith
“Pinned” by Zak Smith

Then there is the skill of a photographic memory, translated into eerily precise depiction. Stephen Wiltshire, an Autistic savant from London, has been called the “Human Camera” because of his uncanny renderings of landscapes he has only seen for a short while. He took a brief helicopter ride over Toyko in 2005 and proceeded to draw its entire skyline on a ten-foot canvas indoors soon after landing. So many mental faculties are being exercised in the execution of such a feat. Wiltshire must keep his visual memory activated for the entire duration of his artistic rendering. Also, it is certainly not enough to have the photographic image accessible, he must also translate it to his hand as he draws the scene with the precision of an architect perfecting a blueprint.

The resulting artwork is not attributable to a specific artistic style, nor does it appear to cleave to any artistic license or imaginative fancy. Wiltshire takes pride in the accuracy of his depiction, not in any artistic merit he might warrant with a more creative, imaginative design. The purpose of his art seems to be non-exploratory, done for the sheer thrill of exacting a representation of what he has seen.

The case studies go on and on to include musical savants who can replay entire symphonies after one listen, language savants who can process an entire language system in days, literary savants who can recall the entire contents of books they have read, and artistic savants who are able to produce an extraordinary scope of work using infinite media. There seems to be infinite ways that this “syndrome” can express itself within the context of human interaction. But what do we still miss here, as we miss in every area of scientific study? Meaning, of course, the force of humanity.

So these people were either born with abilities or have developed abilities outside the range previously thought possible in human functioning. And so what? Before even tackling the “Why?,” which is arguable for eternity, let us consider the “How?” for a moment.

This same uncertainty about the “How?” in the study of Savant Syndrome is applicable to the study of Psychic ability. At the crux of both the savant experience and the psychic experience is the absence of understanding how the person is engaging in its practice.

Many savants are also synesthetes, people who perceive one or more of their five senses in conjunction with another sensual experience which seems to be unrelated. People with synesthesia may see numbers as having shapes, hear music as different colors, or smell odors with an associated color. Savants such as Daniel Tammet, who was able to calculate pi to over the 22,000th decimal place in a single sitting, explain that the numbers and calculations come to them in a landscape of shapes and colors. This type of creative visualization accounts for the impossibility of calculating such numbers instantaneously or committing them to memory — he does not calculate as would a person trying to calculate pi, and he did not spend years attempting to commit the numbers to memory (although that feat would certainly point to extraordinary ability as well.)

No, Tammet visualizes pi as would a psychic who is receiving visual information from a spiritual source. Tammet is unique in being considered a “functional” savant, in that he is able to discuss his abilities objectively, rather than most savants who are not able to verbalize their “process” of thinking or creating. Most savants are developmentally disabled, many to the point of being non-verbal, non-expressive, and/or socially incapable. But even Tammet exhibits undeniable symptoms of autism, being able to recall infinitesimal details about a person’s appearance in quantifiable terms (how many stripes were on their pants) but not being able to remember their face.

However, Acquired Savants have an advantage in their ability to explain their talents in reference to their previous lack thereof, and they rarely develop any noticeable signs of autism in conjunction with their newly acquired abilities. Much like a Spiderman or Incredible Hulk, a single traumatic experience causes these people to change only to accommodate a new interest or ability, not to create any apparent detriment to their psyches. These people, like Autistic Savants, will also explain their talents as coming from an organic place, a place free of “thinking” or “calculating,” a place of surrender to their instinct, allowing their acquired gifts to take the lead.

Much to the dismay of researchers and skeptics of psi, psychics operate in much the same way as savants, usually unable to explain how they are doing what they are doing as they are doing it. They can explain the method but not the transmission, the end but not the means. To complicate this,  most psychics practice their gifts within a spiritual framework, offering a logical explanation for their visions and perceptions. Most psychics are guided to information by angels, spirit guides, through meditation.

Like the gifts of savants, the gifts of energy perception are available to every human being. Any person can complete a mathematical calculation, and any person can detect subtle energy. The difference, as with anything in the realm of human potential, is in the degree. Psychics who are born with strong ability recognize that their channeling talent comes naturally to them, while people who have experienced only a single psychic event are unable to replicate it on demand. Acquired Savants will often say that their sudden talent was not only far outside their previous skill set, it was entirely outside their interests. An actuary with no artistic ability sustains a fall and awakens pleading for a paintbrush. A shy construction worker is shot in the head and comes out of his coma discussing ancestors he has never met in staggering detail. At what point can we get to what scientists consider the “mechanics” of the process?

"Easter Monday" by Willem de Kooning
“Easter Monday” by Willem de Kooning

Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon of Acquired Savant Syndrome carries over not only into the fields of mathematics, language, music, and art, but also into the field of parapsychology. Multiple cases have emerged of people who acquire strong psychic and mediumship ability as a result of an apparent trauma or disease.

Recently, Dr. Eben Alexander published a book which made the cover of Newsweek entitled, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, in which the previously skeptical Duke-graduate doctor explains in stunning detail his journey into the spiritual realm during a coma resulting from meningitis, when his brain was compromised by a bacterial infection of E.coli.

In fact, an argument can be made that every person who has experienced an NDE has acquired, if even for just that experience, an ability to communicate more closely with the spirit world than most others. Or is it simply that those who have the experience are more willing to be receptive to it.

The endless criticism experiencers receive is mainly in the form of disbelief in the possibility of the field in general, rather than disbelief in the specific accounts themselves. How else could fellow scientists and doctors challenge Dr. Alexander’s specific account so easily? One scientist has called Dr. Alexander’s account of his experience not only unscientific, but “anti-scientific.” And I believe this is true, insofar as narrow-minded scientists are willing to believe that they know everything the universe has to offer. But for the scientists who will ultimately help us evolve, like Dr. Alexander, science must come to a place of accepting that it is only a matter of time before our technology (or our evolution as a species to facilitate this level of processing and understanding) accounts for such events tangibly.

Until that day, what acquired savants and autistic savants are able to offer is a kind of tangible proof that is more readily acceptable by the scientific community. Their artistic works are capable of being understood by the five senses, whether or not it was created using those alone. The leading question I would argue is this: Were not all the greatest advancements in science considered affronts to science first?

Adam A. Neal

First published on Adam’s blog, Paranormalyte, on April 9, 2013. 

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