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June 24, 2003

Hidden Capacities


There’s a fascinating piece in the New York Times of June 22, “Savant for a Day” (which you can read here) on how transcranial magnetic stimulation (“TMS”) may make it possible for people to tap unusual mental powers…by suppressing certain brain activity.

The argument of Alan Snyder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sydney, is that (1) the unusual mental abilities of savants (autistics who are capable of amazing mental feats) are actually present in all human beings, (2) that these abilities—such as the ability to do complex mental arithmetic rapidly, to remember with photographic detail and accuracy, to instantly spot proofreading errors, etc.—are actually just basic, lower-level brain processes that occur below the level of ordinary human consciousness, (3) that somehow our ordinary conscious processes mask these abilities or prevent us from accessing them, and (4) that these savant-like skills can be brought out by using TMS to turn down the volume on the "masking" processes.

Professor Snyder claims that the TMS machine, which was originally utilized as an aid in brain surgery, may be the key to unlocking attributes ordinarily considered the property of geniuses or savants in ordinary people:

You could call this a creativity-amplifying machine. It's a way of altering our states of mind without taking drugs like mescaline. You can make people see the raw data of the world as it is. As it is actually represented in the unconscious mind of all of us.

And this line of thinking (and experimenting) is not confined to Professor Snyder:

…researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that TMS applied to the prefrontal cortex enabled subjects to solve geometric puzzles much more rapidly. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, associate professor of neurology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston (who, through his work at the Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation, has been one of the American visionaries of TMS), has even suggested that TMS could be used to ''prep'' students' minds before lessons.

I'm sympathetic with this line of thinking because of three of my own life experiences. One occurred while I was an undergraduate at our Lousy Ivy University: for no particular reason (that I can remember) I made a hobby of doing mental arithmetic. I was astonished, after just a few months of this, at my ability to do things like multiply two- and three-digit numbers just by looking at them and pressing a sort of mental multiplication button—none of your usual “carry the five” stuff, just “boom here’s the answer.” After a while, I got bored with this game and stopped practicing it, and thus gradually lost the ability.

A few years later I noticed that if I concentrated while in a car, I could tell how fast the car was going (accurate to within a few miles per hour). To reassure all of you, I did this while driving around as a passenger in other people’s cars.

When I got interested in art twenty years ao, I spent several months doing the exercises in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” The theory of that book, which also derives from neurology, is that the part of the brain that "gets" drawing is in the right hemisphere of the brain. However, to access it, you need to learn to shut off the normally dominant verbally-oriented left hemisphere of your brain. The parallels of this approach—which really works, by the way—to Professor Snyder’s work are obvious. By the way, one of the “talents” that TMS appears to enhance is--ta dah!--drawing.

My experiences with mental arithmetic, developing my inner speedometer and drawing also suggest to me that what Professor Snyder's machine can do people can learn to do on their own. People have asked, "What if you use TMS to provide yourself with enhanced abilities which you then lose when the machine is turned off?" My guess is that if you learned to do these tasks under the influence of TMS you might be able, eventually, to tap those same skills just by concentrating on them--the way people can learn to control their brain waves after they get hooked up to a brain monitor for feedback. ("Practice makes perfect" really works once you have a sense of what to do. I understand that savants practice their remarkable talents all the time too.)

Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego was interviewed for this story:

Snyder's theories have not been proved, [Prof. Ramachandran] allows, but they are brilliantly suggestive: ''We're at the same stage in brain research that biology was in the 19th century. We know almost nothing about the mind. Snyder's theories may sound like 'The X-Files,' but what he's saying is completely plausible. Up to a point the brain is open, malleable and constantly changing. We might well be able to make it run in new ways.'' Of those who dismiss Snyder's theories out of hand, he shrugs: ''People are often blind to new ideas. Especially scientists.''

So, you want to pitch in for one of these TMS machines? I mean, how expensive could it be?



posted by Friedrich at June 24, 2003


I'm not clear on the "OK-ness" of this, but I'm essentially repeating my comments on Calpundit on the issue; that said:

I dunno. In my experience, and this IS purely anecdotal, I have found that whenever you push the body one way, it gives in another. For instance, you exercise too hard for too many years, and you strain your joints and skeletal structure. I once got this great painkiller from a doctor, and even though it was the best I'd ever taken, I noticed that it gave you the blues for a good couple days afterwards. I have a buddy who was a big pothead for a while, and when he decided to stop when he had kids, he found that he'd permanently messed with his endorphins and had to go on anti-depressants for life. It's come out that the kids who go to raves and use ecstasy find their Serotonin-producing neurons don't make as much anymore, and so they have problems with memory and mood for the rest of their lives. I hope this machine doesn't turn people into Charlie of "Flowers for Algernon."

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 24, 2003 01:55 PM

I throw something into the kitty. Nothing more appealing than the idea that there is some useful talent lurking in my gray matter, if only I could find it.

Additionally, I'd love to see the device reviewed in Consumer Reports.

Posted by: j.c. on June 24, 2003 02:16 PM

Well, I can't vouch for the safety of the device, but--assuming that such a device is safe--I would repeat my claim in the story: the fact that some "ordinary" people can access these powers (you know, like Michelangelo, Rubens, Norman Rockwell) suggests that everybody could do it, once they (1) knew it was possible and (2) could get some experience with it to set up an inner feedback loop. And thus, pretty soon, no more machine.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 24, 2003 02:22 PM

This reminds me of near-sleep experiences. For example, I have little musical ability, but sometimes on the verge of sleep I can compose bits of music that sound pretty good on the inside of my head. (Or I may be just dreaming that they're good.) In general, the inside of my head is dominated by a strongly logical and narrative stream of consciousness that sounds very much like merely a less polished version of the prose I write for a living. There's nothing wrong with that, but I also feel like there are other mental modes that I've increasingly lost access to due to the monopolization of my thinking by my internal prose voice. So, if this gizmo could suppress my dominant mode of thought, my lesser abilities might put in an appearance. Of course, what if they turned off the machine and my prose creating ability had been permanently suppressed? So, I'm not going to volunteer for this, but if you do, let me know how it works.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 24, 2003 03:50 PM

The quote I am most drawn to in the article is: "We remember virtually everything, but we recall very little". I would LOVE to tap into memories that I am sure are up there, somewhere, if I only knew where.

I am not sure I would want to strap electromagnets on my head to find out, though.

Posted by: Tom Otvos on June 24, 2003 03:58 PM

All this reminds me of the old saw that "we only use ten per cent of our brains." It also reminds me that the Skeptical Inquirer magazine had a go-around in the letter column about that figure. Like, who came up with it? When? How was it determined? Why exactly ten per cent and not, say, eleven or twelve? My only contribution to the discussion was coincidentally coming across evidence in an old almanac that the ten per cent of our brains figure was already a popular cliche at least as far back as the late '20s, which meant it was far older than anyone had assumed, but because my letter was printed with my address in the SI letter column, I kind of became the national clearinghouse for theories and speculation on the subject. Although Einstein is often credited with the statement we only use ten per cent, a more plausible source was pioneering psychologist William James - but nobody could come up with an exact quote. In the end, the whole thing faded away with no real answer to the question of how that folk statistic had originated, though I'm sure a concentrated research program with some serious funding could probably turn it up (if it hasn't been already in some book I haven't seen). I have a set of the 1910 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and I checked the "Brain" article to see if that gave me any insight. It kind of did because it described the state of the art in turn-of-the-century brain research. And scientists were very concerned at the time with mapping the brain and its functions. Although the ten per cent figure was not explicitly stated in the article, it did state that most of the brain was still a mystery. So my theory is that circa 1910, some scientist might have stated that we only know how ten per cent of the brain works - and from that came a popular misunderstanding that we only use ten per cent of it. With, of course, the hint that if we could only tap the other 90 per cent, we'd have all sorts of marvelous super-duper mental powers, and maybe be able to rearrange the furniture with a twitch of the nose.

I don't doubt that most of us don't use our full potential. (Lord, I heard that a lot from parents, teachers, and guidance counselors in my younger days...) We probably do have a lot of untapped capability that lies fallow for lack of motivation or opportunity. Life is short, and there isn't time to fully exploit every possibility. But I doubt if the ratio is quite as drastic as ten per cent used and ninety per cent unused...

To get back to the main point of this thread, I remember my older brother telling me he'd been a wizard calculator as a very little kid, but had lost the facility as he grew older. The underlying suspicion I get from the stories of "idiot savants," otherwise mentally challenged individuals who can compute in their heads what day Christmas will fall on a thousand years from now or can rattle off the first few hundred prime numbers in order, is that they're diverting mental processing power for exotic functions that rest of us would use for daily life. And some little kids like my brother might start out being able to perform mathematical prodigies, but would lose the ability as their minds developed and normal functioning took over. This suggests that the conscious mind might have a very good reason to suppress the background processing that TMS would lay bare, and messing with it could really screw up your mental workings. Well, I'm not an expert on these things, so I can only speculate. I just know I can't figure out what day of the week George Washington was born on... (I wonder if the savants who can take into consideration the adjustment that was made in the calendar way back when, which makes an eleven-day difference in George's birthday depending on how you figure it?)

My interest is in languages, but I'm what you might call a "diligent plodder." It's a lot of work to learn a language, and there are times when my brain says "enough!" for a while to the overload of incoming information. But there are people who are really, really GOOD at learning foreign languages and just soak them up like water while I'm still getting my tang tungled in umlauts and circumflexes. I don't know if they lack that built-in resistance to too much new information at once that I can sometimes feel or if some more mysterious factor (like "talent") is at work...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on June 25, 2003 02:54 AM

It seems to me the gizmo is taking the adult back to the early childhood stage when the brain was unfettered by learned information and completely open to learning given the right circumstances. I've done the "Drawing on the Right Side" of the brain exercises as well and the whole point of some of them is to take you outside the known and expected and make you see what is really there--much like a child who has no preconceived notions about what something is sposed to be or sound like or look like. Most of the really creative folks I know retain somehow that ability or willingness to play like a child.

Posted by: Deb on June 25, 2003 01:01 PM

Dwight - it was me. I lost 90% of my brain in a foolish go-cart accident, but continue with the remaining 10-percent and no obvious changes.

Posted by: j.c. on June 25, 2003 03:45 PM

I'd definitely like to take one of these for a test drive.

The most disturbing aspect of the Times article is one that disturbs me so often with new inventions and discoveries... the folks that want to use it for military purposes. Jesus! Enlightenment, insight, or more efficient killing machines? I know which I'd choose.

Posted by: Dixon on June 25, 2003 04:17 PM

A number of anecdotes:

(1) When I was a child, I was able to quickly solve a Rubik's cube, but only if I saw it get "randomized" by me or someone else. The thing was that I didn't realize that I was unconsciously undoing the moves until someone became suspicious of my abilities (and then randomized it without me seeing). At the time I was disappointed, though it's pretty neat that I could remember a complex series of twists and turns without realizing it.

(2) As a mathematician, I've found that often inspiration strikes while I am falling asleep, or while I'm in a state of self-hypnosis. Note that most mathematical insights are quite distinct from arithmetic calculations. The noted mathematician Hadamard (sp?) reported similar experiences, as did some of his friends.

(3) In learning a foreign language, I've found that the only thing which helps me is to write in the language. This gives me the ability to learn vocabulary that I actually use, and to think about the grammar of the language. I've found that learning mathematics is similar. Understanding a proof, theorem or definition often depends on putting things in the right context--knowing the vocabulary like you know what "university" means. This can again only be learned (for me...) by trying to use the word in context and thinking about the concept.

Take from that what you will...

Posted by: Lucas Wiman on June 26, 2003 03:08 AM

Lucas, I cultivated the ability to solve computer science problems when I was a teen by leveraging that falling asleep state. I'd think of the problem as I was going to sleep, and would often wake up the next morning or in the middle of the night with the solution in the front of my consciousness.

Meditation ("self-hypnosis" as you put it) helped me in later years to tap into that more while conscious.

Steve, meditation can help you turn off that internal monologue, without risk of damage from an electrical device! Mantra combined with mandala based sitting meditation is probably where I'd suggest a beginner at it with that goal start, those are the most direct methods to shut it off.

Posted by: David Mercer on June 26, 2003 03:43 PM

Actually, I think Lucas's mentioned of learning a foreign language is very perceptive. As an aspiring linguist, we learn about the massive debate going on right now in the larger social sciences community about how we acquire language. MIT's Pinker points out that no one explicitly teaches us the rules of grammar. We pick them up somehow-- perhaps innately! Sociolinguists point out that babies tend to overgeneralize at a certain stage based upon what they're perceiving, that it of course necessitates input from people around them, so just how far could innateness ever go (as concerns innate or Chomsky's "universal" grammar)?

Hmmm. Then there's some middle ground. Some think that every person creates their own language after a fashion. Socialization refines it, and you adopt accents, tones, whatever might be local for you (or prescribed perhaps), but your mind takes it all and sifts it into its own system, largely modeled after the input.

My comments on this topic are that perhaps this is what happens with more than just language. Language is a malleable, notoriously flexible, and also notoriously complex system that we just kind of do. Might similar things happen with basic systems of quick 2-3 digit multiplication and other forms of creativity? Its often been said that learning how to draw a certain way, participate in certain schools of thought, drive in certain fashions, is like learning another language.

If we can step back and devise a way to see languages in the same light as all these other tasks, tied to the "transcranial creativity factor" then... maybe it really is another language! :) Maybe they should start testing if you learn other languages faster too since you could pick up and apply case systems, etc. faster!

Posted by: Admiral Waugh on July 29, 2003 02:12 AM

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