Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Savant syndrome

Something I’ve heard about for years that always intrigued me was a condition known in the psychiatric field as the Savant Syndrome.
It’s a condition where some people have a prodigious memory of a special type, a memory that’s been described as "very deep, but exceedingly narrow". It is wide in the sense that they can recall certain things but have a hard time putting them to use.

Certain savants have been shown to display advanced skill in one or more of five major areas: Art, musical abilities, calendar calculating, mathematics and spatial skills. Socially, most savants’ often times display great deficiencies, generally consistent with Autism disorders although symptoms have been known to recede over time. Scientists have theorized that savants lack Theory of Mind.The syndrome is poorly understood. No widely accepted cognitive theory explains the combination of talent and deficit found in savants.

So these are people who often can’t talk, won’t look at anyone, seeming to reside in their own worlds, that is until directed toward their particular genius.People having mental abilities that could only be characterized as superhuman, like having photographic memory, playing music perfectly after hearing it just once, or doing complex mathematical calculations in their head but otherwise severely disabled in every day cognitive functions and social interaction.

Does the human brain have latent savant-like abilities? Does our higher cognitive functions somehow block these abilities, and why? Could all of us have savant-like abilities without the accompanying developmental disabilities and just haven’t discovered how to access them yet?Most savants are born with their abilities and unfortunately, their developmental disorders, but not all. Severe brain injuries can, in very rare instances, cause savant-like abilities to surface.

Finding all this incredibly intriguing, I scoured the Internet for living examples of people possessing these fantastical abilities, finding plenty of documented cases. So I thought I would list a few of the more interesting ones.

Kim Peek, the Real Rain Man

Even though you've never heard of Kim Peek, chances are you've heard about the movie Rain Man. Kim was the inspiration for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie.
He was born with severe brain damage. His childhood doctor told his father to put him in an institution and forget about the boy. Kim's severe developmental disabilities, according to the doctor, would not let him walk, let alone learn. Kim's father disregarded the doctor's advice.
Till this day, Kim struggles with ordinary motor skills and has difficulty walking. He is severely disabled, cannot button his shirt and tests well below average on a general IQ test.
But what Kim can do is astounding. He has read some 12,000 books and remembers everything word. "Kimputer," as many lovingly know him, reads two pages at once - his left eye reads the left page, and his right eye reads the right page. It takes him about 3 seconds to read through two pages - and he remember everything on 'em. He can recall facts and trivia from 15 subject areas from history to geography to sports. Tell him a date, and Kim can tell you what day of the week it is. He also remembers all music he’s ever heard.

Leslie Lemke

Leslie Lemke didn't have a great start in life. He was born with severe birth defects that required doctors to remove his eyes. His own mother gave him up for adoption, and a nurse named May Lemke, who at the time was 52 and was raising 5 children of her own, adopted him when he was six months old.As a young child, Leslie had to be force-fed to teach him how to swallow. He couldn’t stand until he was 12. At 15, Leslie finally learned how to walk. May had to strap his body to hers to teach him.
At 16 years of age, Leslie Lemke bloomed. In the middle of one night, May woke to find Leslie playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Leslie, who had no classical music training, was playing the piece flawlessly after hearing it just once earlier on the television.From then on, Leslie began playing all styles of music from ragtime to classical. Like the Tchaikovsky piece, he only has to hear the music once in order to play it again perfectly. He became famous after being portrayed in national television shows. Before his health started to deteriorate, Leslie gave many concerts around the world.

Ellen Boudreaux

Like Leslie Lemke, Ellen Boudreaux is a blind autistic savant with exceptional musical abilities. She can play music perfectly after hearing it just once, and has such a huge repertoire of songs in her head that a newspaper reporter once tried to "stump Ellen" by requesting that she played some obscure songs - and failed. Ellen knew them all.
She has two other savant skills that are unusual. First, despite her blindness, she is able to walk around without ever running into things. As she walks, she makes little chirping sounds that seem to act like a human sonar Second, Ellen has an extremely precise digital clock ticking in her mind. Ellen knows the exact hour and minute, any time of the day without ever having seen a clock nor never having the concept of the passing of time explained to her.

Now with this phenomenon, some cases are unique in that the person was absolutely normal until some type of brain injury. A man named Orlando Serrell didn’t possess any special skills until he was struck in the head by a baseball when he was 10 with his extraordinary gifts seeming to be the only side effect. Could this mean once a key hemisphere in our brains are stimulated, we can all attain the level of genius Orlando posses and beyond? Only time and research will tell.

We’ve all heard at various times that we only use something like 10% of the true capacity of our complex minds, which I was hoping to elaborate on in this piece but it turns out scientists have discounted that theory as wishful thinking.
How do we then reconcile that with Orlando Serrell’s expericance and others like him, I don’t know. Like most folks who think too much, I guess I was hoping for some magic pill, operation, possibility or at least the potential to draw upon humanities full powers, for some reason hidden from us, either now or into our future in this grand experiment we call life.
If nothing else, knowing humans are out there with this Savant Syndrome, with abilities bordering on magic, allows us all to dream and that ain’t a bad thing, is it?

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Friday, May 11, 2012

American girl 12, builds 27 homes in Haiti

If there really is something called "helper’s high" - that feel-good sensation that comes from extending a helping hand to others - Rachel Wheeler is soaring.The 12-year-old Florida resident has done more to aid others than many grown-ups do in a lifetime.

Three years ago, when she was only nine, Rachel tagged along with her mother to a very adult meeting about charity work in Haiti. She listened as Robin Mahfood, from the aid agency Food For The Poor, describe children so hungry that they eat cookies made of mud, so poor that they sleep in houses made of cardboard.At the time, Julie Wheeler wasn’t even sure her young daughter understood much of what was being discussed— "until Rachel stood on a chair in front of all those adults and pledged to help Food For The Poor," Wheeler said.

Then a fourth grader, Rachel promised to raise money to build a dozen homes in Haiti."Rachel didn’t just want to help," her mother remembers, "but she said she had to help."Rachel ran bake sales, passed the can at homecoming games and sold homemade potholders at her Zion Lutheran School in Deerfield Beach, Fla. She mailed fundraising appeals to the parents of her friends and the people she knew from church. In her hometown, the Lighthouse Point Chamber of Commerce cut two sizable checks.

Through her Facebook page and word-of-mouth, a cherry farm in Washington heard about Rachel and sent along the proceeds from one of its season's harvest. Another generous donation came from a family that regularly supports the overseas work of Food For The Poor.In three short years, this little girl raised more than $250,000.
Instead of just building 12 homes, Rachel more than doubled her promise. She spent $170,000 on brand-new earthquake-proof cement structures that shelter 27 families in a small fishing town outside of the capital Port-au-Prince. The families baptized the housing tract "Rachel’s Village."Many of the new homeowners had spent their entire lives residing in makeshift homes and tents. Food For The Poor had to give instructions on how to fit a key in a lock and turn a doorknob.

Rachel’s dream now is to rebuild the local school, which was severely damaged in the catastrophic 7.2 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in early 2010, killing 316,000 people and leaving 3 million homeless.She has about half of the money she needs to fix the Reap de Morel school in Leogane, where 200 students learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic in classrooms that have no walls, a patched tin roof and dirt floors. Mahfood calls the fact that children even attend school "a small miracle," given that most are homeless, hungry and live in a country where more than half the population can't read or write their own name.
Classrooms are partitioned by bed sheets. The school "library" is a simple wooden table displaying no more than 30 tattered books. Each child owns just a single pencil and notebook. Textbooks are as scarce as food.In a makeshift cafeteria, women spend the morning cooking huge vats of rice and beans. By 10 a.m., students are too hungry to concentrate, so lunch is served. This hot lunch, supplied by Food For The Poor, is the only meal of the day for most of these children.

Food For The Poor has worked in Haiti for 25 years. The charity runs hundreds of food pantries that feed more than 400,000 people daily and it supports dozens of free health clinics with medicines to treat thousands of children a week. Many young Haitians suffer from deadly diseases such as cholera, which has killed more than 6,200 Haitians and sickened nearly 440,000 over the past year.

Rachel has been to Haiti twice and has seen the abject poverty firsthand. "I don’t believe I can snap my fingers and change Haiti overnight," she said. "I know I have to work at it."One might call her approach mature for a 12-year-old. But Rachel isn't your typical pre-teen. She has already invested a fourth of her life to her cause."If everyone helped Haiti like Rachel, the country could stand on its own," said Mahfood. "In five years, Haiti would be a completely different country."So again, when you hear someone’s lament about the lazy no good for nothing youth nowadays in America, remember Rachel’s example and feel good about your self, because you’re one who knows the truth.

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