Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a somewhat heretical view of the origin of consciousness. My intuition (supported by a small but growing number of respected scientists and philosophers, and an abundance of contemplatives and mystics) is that consciousness is not produced by our brain.
Instead, the brain acts as a ‘reducing valve’ or filter of a larger trans-personal, universal ‘mind at large’. Thousands of years of evolution have developed these filters, for if we were completely open to the experience of reality as it actually exists, we would super-saturated, overwhelmed and be unable to perform the necessary functions to survive in our current form.
One interesting condition that might hint at the existance of a mind at large is Savant Syndrome.
Savant syndrome is a relatively rare condition in which someone with a pre-existing developmental disorder (congenital) such as autism, brain malformation or other intellectual disability, develops extraordinary skillsets and or abilities such as
- extraordinary accurate memorisation of trivia, music, numbers etc
- performance of musical, artistic, mathematical or other scholarly skills ranging from advanced to astounding.
- performing spatial or mechanical skills (such as the ability to make accurate measurements without tools).
As well as congenital savant syndrome, there are reported cases of perviously well people who experience some form of injury or debilitation to their brain that should for all intents and purposes leave them with loss of cognitive/conscious function, but instead a sort of filter failure allows them to access unexpectedly rich states of being.
Acquired savant syndrome.
Usually occurs in previously well individuals who experience some form of central nervous system trauma, such as a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or dementia. Despite some of the reported cases getting a lot of media attention (see below) the condition is quite rare with only 32 cases recorded in the scientific literature.
Here is a short film on one case, Derek Amato, who was suddenly able to play the piano at a high level of proficiency following a traumatic brain injury.
Sudden savant syndrome.
This is a newly identified condition where savant skills and abilities appear spontaneously in normal people who have no prior aptitude in the acquired skills.
A recently published case report in the Wisconsin Medical Journal (WMJ) looked at 11 cases in which savant skills suddenly and unexpectedly manifested.
One example recorded is that of a 43-year-old woman with zero interest or training in art, who woke up one night in 2016 with “the urgent need to draw a multitude of triangles, multiple geometric and triangular formations, which quickly evolved to a web of complex abstract designs” (Treffert 2021).
This compulsive need to draw continued to develop over the next 15 months resulting in a portfolio of 15 works “with styles reminiscent of artists including Frida Khalo and Picasso” (Treffert 2021.)
In the 11 cases discussed in this paper the most common skill arising was related to art, although cases involving mathematics and music were also seen.
The authors identified several things that differentiated Sudden Savant Syndrome from simply a predisposition for acquiring new skills:
- The ability has an abrupt onset with no prior interest in or talent for the newly acquired ability.
- There is no obvious precipitating event, CNS injury, or disease.
- The new skills are coupled with a detailed, epiphany-typeknowledge of the underlying rules of music, art, or math, for example—none of which the person had previously studied in detail. Sudden savants appear to know concepts without having previously learned them or suddenly gain a deeper understand- ing they had not had before.
- The skill is initially accompanied with an obsessivecompulsive component; there is the overpowering need to play music, draw, or compute. It is as much a force as a gift, as is usually the case with both congenital and acquired savant syndrome.
- There is a fear the gift and compulsion are evidence of losing one’s mind and a tendency to hide the new ability from others rather than display it.
What is going on here? I have no idea.
To be clear, these instances are indeed rare and for every case, many others experience devastating or debilitating loss of function following brain injury.
But when instances of savant syndrome do occur, our current materialistic, brain-centric view of consciousness struggles to explain how a decrease in the volume of normally functioning brain (or for no apparent reason at all), can produce such rich subjective experiences.
If you would like to read more about the transpersonal model of consciousness I would recommend exploring the following authors:
- Bernardo Kastrup
- Donald Hoffman
- Rupert Spira
- Steve Taylor
- Rupert Sheldrake
Link to full article (pdf): The Sudden Savant: A New Form of Extraordinary Abilities
Photo by Mike Petrucci