Bioethics Blogs

Would You Want to be a Savant?

By John Banja
John Banja, PhD is a medical ethicist at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, a professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, and the editor of AJOB Neuroscience.
Darold Treffert (2010), a psychiatrist who has devoted the better part of his career to studying savants, notes that there are at least 3 kinds.
First, those who manifest the “savant syndrome” and display the most astonishing of savant abilities, such as Kim Peek who was the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt, in the movie Rain Man. Peek, who died from a heart attack in 2009, was remarkable even by savant standards: He memorized more than 12,000 books and was able to read two pages simultaneously, one page with the right eye, the other page with the left. He also had a remarkably hospitable form of dyslexia where he could read words on a page turned sideways or upside down or backwards—such as reflected in a mirror. He could add a column of numbers from a telephone book page and instantly tell you the mean of those numbers, and he could do lightning calendar calculations like telling you which day of the week you were born upon knowing your birth date (Treffert, 2010, pp. 120-129). These were only a few of his talents. 

I might also mention Daniel Tammet who, on March 14th, 2004 on “International Pi Day”—get it?: 3.14—recited from memory Pi to 22,514 decimal places (p. 161). Or George Widener who can tell you what day of the week June 25th will be in the year 47,253 (p.

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