By Phyllis Wallbank

I recently watched a fine documentary on what used to be known as 'Idiots Savants'. These are very exceptional children who never develop much beyond the age of about five, but who have one exceedingly extraordinary gift, usually in drawing or music or a branch of mathematics.

The commentator said that it is not known how this phenomenon comes about. If we take the different stages as outlined by Lonergan and Montessori, I would suggest that the following is the answer:

The documentary showed Stephen Wiltshire who can look at a group of very complex buildings for a very short time and then reproduce them with all the details. The buildings are architecturally accurate.

When they showed him working, one saw that he quickly kept his pen moving over the whole. He did not complete a building first and then another until the drawing was complete. He quickly sketched the whole scene and then finished off the details. He had taken it in as a whole like a photographic impression.

Another boy was shown playing the piano; when a complex piece of music was played just once to him, he could reproduce it immediately with all the chords and the same harmony. Yet the same boy was like a very small child in behavior although he was about eighteen or twenty years old.

I suggest that the reason for this lies in the fact that the brain is still functioning as that of a child below six. Up to the age of six young children absorb their environment. They absorb the culture, customs and language of their country and function as a child of the country where they are living, with the language of the people around them. It is understood now that it is the frontal lobes of the brain that are active in this way. The young child usually absorbs the language by the end of the third year, complete with the grammar.

After the age of six these frontal lobes normally cease to function in this fashion, because the data collection and cause-and-effect parts of the brain take over instead. This is why an adult has to learn a language in a different way from the way a young child learns. The adult has more difficulty than the young child and the accent and intonation is never as perfect as the child who learns the language by absorbing it in this holistic way.

I suspect that part of the savant's brain has been damaged and so doesn't develop as it usually would, but that the frontal lobes are undamaged and nature compensates by keeping this absorbent mind part of the brain active and receptive for the subject that interests him.

The savant stays at Lonergan's 'immediate stage' and Montessori's 'Absorbent mind period of sensitivity'. The segment of the savant's brain which is active from birth to 6 is able to continue to receive nourishment and go on growing. This is why he is able to reproduce music, art or sometimes mathematical calculation of calendar dates in this wonderful photographic way.

This part of the brain continues to function exactly like the brain of the normal child of a younger age when there is this stage of absorption where the whole is received not section by section, but more like a photograph. The language, the culture, the morality, the religion, are taken in like a photograph of a whole scene rather than a bit-by-bit sketch.

It seems that this younger part of the savant's brain remains active as he gets older. Consequently, this absorption of things as a whole does not diminish in him, whereas in all other people it does, in order that factual understanding may come about.

Usually, from the age of seven, objects in a child's vicinity are investigated, studied and understood and questions become very important. This is Lonergan's Mediate stage. This enables the child with normal development to understand the environment.

The savant seems unable to achieve this step-by-step understanding, but his frontal lobes appear to retain the earlier activity undiminished. This, I believe, is why a savant may develop a greater ability than normal to absorb a scene for drawing or to reproduce a piece of music immediately, complete with harmony. He still sees and hears as a complete whole, whereas others at this later age have not the capacity to do this as the frontal lobes no longer work in the same way as they did before they were seven. The savant's brain continues with this earlier sensitivity, developing wherever his interest lies, and so he is able to draw and play music brilliantly as a whole. He takes in aerial views and draws them, whereas we have to take each section analytically since that is the normal stage of brain development for an older child.

While the savant's brain remains at the earlier stage of absorption and goes on being active, we are lost in wonder at this strange and fine ability produced within someone who otherwise functions at a low level of understanding. The savant has never progressed from Lonergan's 'Immediate stage.'