Bright Splinters of the Mind: A Personal Story of Research with Autistic Savants
By Beate Hermelin. Foreword by Sir Michael Rutter.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2001.
ISBN: 1-85302-932. 176 pp.
Available in Canada from Irwin Publishing at
Reviewed by John Clifton of Guelph
Beate Hermelin’s Bright Splinters of the Mind is a fascinating and frequently surprising account of what must surely count as one of the glories of the autistic world. For at least a hundred years (since Alfred Binet coined the term “idiots savants”), there have been anecdotal references to persons who possessed remarkable talents despite generally low levels of intelligence. Hamelin’s book appears to be among the first to go beyond documentation and to attempt a scientific explanation as well. That a sort of “autistic thinking” plays a role in this inspiring phenomenon will be welcomed as good news by both researchers and members of the autistic community.
In the early pages of her book, Hermelin tells us of her amazement when she first began to encounter autistic persons who possessed startling abilities. She describes meeting a thirteen year old boy whose reasoning ability was equivalent to that of a four year old but who could instantly tell her the day of the week on which she had been born. Another autistic boy of fifteen who attended a special school for children with severe learning disabilities was able to play the piano remarkably well. Still another, also attending a special school, was able to draw amazingly accurate and detailed pictures from memory.
Since the early sixties, Hermelin has been pioneering experimental investigations into the thoughts and language use of children with Autism. In 1970, she co-authored a book with Neil O’Connor entitled Psychological Experiments with Autistic Children. This was at a time when (she tells us) hardly any controlled investigations of such individuals had been published (p.43). Since the majority of persons with savant talents are autistic (80%), Hermelin began to wonder whether there might be something about the “autistic style of thinking” that might help to facilitate these startling abilities.
Citing various theories of intelligence and the “block design test” originated by Shah and Firth, Hermelin begins with the view that persons with Autism have “weak central coherence”. What this means is that, while non-autistic persons “tend to obtain and recall a general impression of things and events (a “gestalt”), autistics perceive parts and local details of a display” (p.45). On the down side, weak central coherence can account for the autistic tendency to see the world as unpredictable and chaotic. In the forties, Kanner noted that autistics prefer stability and routine. He surmised that this was part of an effort to inject order into an otherwise disordered experience. On the up side, while autistics tend to perceive individual details, they are also able to do this with greater focus and accuracy. This explains, for example, why they are better able than their non-autistic intellectual counterparts to remember a string of unrelated words (such as “book, horse, white, three”) versus meaningful phrases (such as “the dog is hungry”). According to Hermelin, “the “weak central coherence theory” allows not only for mental deficits, but also for certain assets that may result from such a style of information processing” (p.48). Gifted autistics initially “focus on details and segments” and this eventually leads to the “production of pictures, music, calendar structure, and even poetry and knowledge of foreign languages” (p.48). With this as her starting point, Hermelin and her associates devised a series of ingenious experiments to learn whether indeed the weak central coherence theory might help to account for savant talents.
Hermelin’s study of talented individuals commences with a poet whose I.Q. could not be measured because she could not understand the questions. Despite her intellectual limitations, including the inability to utilize language efficiently in her ordinary life, Kate was able to produce effective poetry of similar merit to that of another “talented amateur” who was her intellectual superior. By comparing and contrasting the work of these two poets, Hermelin established that Kate employed similes, metaphors, and other poetic devices with equal facility to her non-autistic counterpart. This seemed especially surprising since Kate’s talent lay in the area of language processing, an area where she was typically weak. For Hermelin, what this suggested was that language is not a “unitary function”. For savants and probably for the rest of us, intellectual functions can be “subdivided into quasi-modular sub-domains” (p.62). Therefore, excellence in the area of poetry can coexist alongside an otherwise inefficient use of language. What this chapter establishes is that weak central coherence in general does not preclude the ability to arrive at strong coherence in certain areas of cognition.
In the chapters that follow, Hermelin investigates the abilities of several savants in a variety of domains. “Christopher” had a remarkable ability to learn languages. He mastered much of the vocabulary of several and was able to supply accurate person-verb agreement when necessary. What Christopher was less able to achieve was the assimilation of new grammar: “His syntactic errors indicated that he appeared to ‘filter’ new grammars through the parameters of his native English” (p.74). Hermelin maintains that Christopher’s autistic tendency to focus upon details accounts for his ability to acquire a vast knowledge of words and morphological units. However, while this ability made him very strong in one area of language acquisition, it did not affect “his limited skill in setting new grammatical parameters” (p.76). It was here that Christopher’s deficits in the area of “central coherence” became apparent.
Regarding calendar calculators, Hermelin maintains that it is “probably the most frequently observed ability in savants” (p.78). She begins her chapter on this topic with an exploration of the complexity of our present Gregorian calendar lest there be any doubt that the ability to say that August 8, 1953 falls on a Tuesday is a remarkable feat indeed. Hermelin maintains that autistic calendar calculators begin with a fascination for individual dates such as birthdays and holidays. Attention to these details gives way to a knowledge of dates for its own sake. Eventually, such an intense contemplation of calendrical events gives rise to an “implicit” knowledge of calendrical structure. Although savants cannot say how they know, Hermelin argues that they do know, albeit unconsciously. In this, they resemble the child who cannot say how she knows that the subject precedes the verb though she will employ this rule in her speech. Savant calculators take account of the length of individual months, leap years and such calendrical symmetries as that in certain months of a given year, the days of the week will fall on the same number date.
Hermelin cites several experiments to confirm this account of how calendar calculators have implicit knowledge of calendrical structure. For example, in one experiment, savant calculators were presented with pairs of dates. Some pairs were matched by the experimenter so that they both fell on the same day of the week but in a different month of the year. Other dates were chosen so that they differed in that respect. When asked to remember the date pairs, there was a significant statistical likelihood that the pairs matched according to weekday would be remembered better. Hermelin argues that this ability reflects the savant’s implicit knowledge of a connection between some dates that does not exist between others. The presence of this connection marks certain date pairs and expedites their speedy retrieval from memory.
In subsequent chapters, the talents of savant musicians and artists are explored. Of particular interest is Hermelin’s analysis of the manner in which savant talents can reveal themselves “in the doing”. For example, she cites an experiment wherein several savant artists were asked to remember and subsequently identify a geometric shape. While they were unable to do this (vis a vis a control group of more intelligent but equally talented non-savant artists), they were able to achieve success when asked to draw from memory what they had seen. Hermelin takes this as confirmation of the view espoused by art historian Ernest Gombich that “the artist tends to look more at what he does than at what he sees” (p.128).
The foregoing quotation is only one of Hermelin’s many intriguing references to a variety of scholars, poets, musicians, artists and philosophers, including Chomsky, Diderot, Delacroix, Eratosthenes, Kandinsky, Schonberg, Nietzsche, and Tennyson. That Hermelin makes these connections testifies both to her capacious erudition and to her immense respect for savant talents. Early on in her account she states that her wish is not to diminish our “wonder about the apparently mysterious, extraordinary abilities of those gifted individuals who are otherwise emotionally and cognitively impaired” (p.26). However, despite such proclamations, Hermelin is ultimately cautious in her appraisal of the achievements of autistic savants. She maintains that for savants, music, art and poetry serve primarily as “means of self expression rather than communication…there is no aim for the greatest possible perfection”. Also, “the mental impairments from which savants suffer set boundaries to the development of their talents. There are no savant geniuses about” (p.177). From the magnificent evidence provided in several pages of Hermelin’s book showing the paintings and drawings of Stephen and Richard, one wonders whether she isn’t being too pessimistic.