The extraordinary powers of savants
It was April, 2008 when I saw Stephen Wiltshire draw the Dubai skyline completely from memory. I had stepped down from my office in DIFC to grab a cup of coffee and there he was with a crowd around him, drawing the skyline in a level of detail and accuracy as if it was a photograph. He was drawing the detailed skyline, from memory, after having taken a 30 minute helicopter ride over the Dubai skyline.
Stephen Wiltshire was unable to speak until age seven and had been diagnosed with autism giving him a bleak chance in life. Now, he draws entire cities from memory and has been awarded the MBE by the United Kingdom.
You might have come across the term ‘savants’. Savants are people who display extraordinary abilities, e.g. exceptional musical ability, superhuman memory recall and and artistic skills that cannot be taught. Take the case of Kim Peek who was renowned for his ability to recall zip codes or dates in seconds. His superhuman abilities were due to the damage to his brain which had impaired the connections between the two halves of his brain. His character inspired the 1988 film Rain Man. Among the most amazing cases in this area are those savants who wake up with these extraordinary abilities after a brain injury. While some of these acquired abilities continue to amaze and baffle, it makes us think about what we would have been if we had activated these untapped abilities in all of us.
We are who we are because of what we have lost from our brains
When you were 2 year old you had ~100 trillion synapses in your brain. By the time you were 18 years old you would have pared back ~50 trillion of those synapses. Humans are born as WIP (work in progress) and continue to remain so throughout our lives. Amongst all mammals, humans are unique to give birth to babies that take the extraordinary journey of becoming fully functional after many years. At the root of this mystery is the human brain. Newly born human babies gradually tune in into sensory signals over a period of two years. During this period our neurons rapidly form trillions of connections called synapses. One of the reasons why you find that babies have such large heads compared to their bodies (cuteness aside). Those synapses that are used frequently become stronger, while those that aren’t, wither away. This process of pruning away allows the brain to shape itself to its environment. David Eagleman, a renowned neuroscientist says “You become who you are not because of what grows in your brain, but because of what’s removed.”
I tend to use the analogy of the computer circuit board. Imagine the magic of our human brain - being born with a circuit board that is ever changing. At the age of 2 our circuit board has all the circuitry that could enable us to be super-humans – great artist, scientist, math whiz, musician, problem solver, linguist all rolled into one personality. Then the circuit board starts changing. The circuitry that gets used through our experiences becomes stronger and stronger and deeply etched. Those that do not get activated due to the lack of related experiences become weak and slowly go quiet.
Leaders are more susceptible to pruning of synapses because of the stereotypes around what leaders are expected to be. Besides the fact that they are usually 18 years old or more and have pruned away 50% of their synapses by then. Add to it the social expectations of “don’t do this”, “don’t go there”, “that is not good” and you have another set of pruning that has eaten away at the synapses.
Leaders are also expected to be experts at something, an industry or a function or a geography. Show me a leadership profile, I do not ever propose that leadership is a role, that doesn’t lay expectations of ‘depth of experience’. Yet another factor that definitely would have caused further pruning of the brain circuitry.
MacArthur “Genius” Grant Winner, Beth Stevens, is an associate professor in the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. She has helped to identify the role of microglia in the removal of synaptic cells during brain development or “pruning”. Her work is path breaking, because it may help us understand why some of us get inflicted by diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism and schizophrenia.
You can imagine the microglia as the housekeepers of the brain. These ‘housekeepers’ work along with collaborator cells, called “astrocytes”. Astrocytes go around the brain looking for synapses that haven’t been developed because of their lack of use. Astrocytes then mark them with an immune protein that functions as an “eat me” sign. Microglia travel around the brain eating up these synapses gobbling up these excess connections, maximizing the efficiency of the brain’s wiring.
Studies have suggested that microglia are more active, and synapses more abundant, in the brains of people on the autism spectrum. Probably explains the extraordinary ability of Stephen Wiltshire while drawing the detailed skyline from memory.
Why is the diversity of experiences important?
The good news is that our brain changes itself into our sunset years. Tapping into this plasticity of our brains is a huge advantage we tend to miss out on.
Now imagine every experience that you, as a leader, have abstained from. It could have made you different. Maybe better but definitely helped you activate those circuitries which could have been exciting.
It all boils down to what experiences we subject our brain to. Even small ones tap into its plasticity. Starting a new interest – a genre of music you have never tried. Learning a new language. Exploring ambiguity in works of art. Learning to use your non-dominant hand for dexterity. Working with people from backgrounds you have never worked with before. All of this, if curated well, could help you make neural development work to your advantage.
The hidden savants in all of us
One way to explore our own possibilities is to look at what kind of powers have been unlocked in ‘accidental savants’, those who wake from brain injuries with extraordinary abilities. The evidence points to abilities related to music, art, calendar calculating, and memorization, or a combination of some of these. That’s a lot of superhuman abilities lurking inside our hood. And in this uncertain and ambiguous world, you can never be sure about what will help you navigate.
The science behind how the brain generates these savant powers is fascinating and the magic hormone serotonin plays a central role. Dying cells in the brain, caused by an injury, leak serotonin into the surrounding tissue. Since serotonin is also our brains communication hormone, it creates new connections leading to the re-emergence of the lost neural circuitries.
Neuroscientists have also found that creative talent appears especially resilient to damage. They speculate the reason may be because art is an ancient type of communication system. Maybe your journey as a leader could do with a large dose of mastering art.