Footnote of the Month: January 2010

Why don’t we all have savant talents? In Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks discusses the experimental use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily inhibit certain brain functions in order to heighten others. He includes a footnote on his own experiences:

Something perhaps analogous happened to me in 1965, when, like a certain number of medical students and residents at the time, I was taking massive doses of amphetamines. For a period of two weeks, I found myself in possession of a number of extraordinary skills I normally lacked. (I published an account of this, “The Dog Beneath the Skin,” which focused on the heightening of smell, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.)

I could not only recognize everyone I knew by smell, but could hold very accurate and stable visual images in my mind and trace them on paper, as with a camera lucida. My powers of musical memory and transcription were greatly increased, and I could replay complex melodies on my piano after a single hearing. My enjoyment of these newfound powers and the world of greatly heightened sensation that went with them was mitigated, however, by finding that my abstract thinking was extremely compromised. When, decades later, I read of Bruce Miller’s patients and of Allan Snyder’s experiments, I wondered whether the amphetamines might have caused a transient temporal lobe disinhibition and a release of “savant” powers.

(from Musicophilia, Vintage paperback edition, p. 169)