The following is an excerpt from Tanya Lewis | July 20, 2012 | Wired.com |
Imagine a creativity cap. A device that would free you, if only momentarily, from your mindsets, from your prejudices, from the mental blocks to creativity.
These words are emblazoned on the website Creativitycap.com, and they represent the vision of neuroscientist Allan Snyder. Snyder believes we all possess untapped powers of cognition, normally seen only in rare individuals called savants, and accessing them might take just a few jolts of electricity to the brain.
It sounds like a Michael Crichton plot, but Snyder, of the University of Sydney, Australia, says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a prototype of the creativity cap within a couple of years. His research suggests that brain stimulation improves people’s ability to solve difficult problems. But Snyder’s interpretation of his findings remains controversial, and the science of using brain stimulation to boost thinking is still in its early stages.
“I think it’s a bit of a minefield,” said psychologist Robyn Young of Flinders University in Australia, who has tried to replicate Snyder’s early experiments. “I’m not really sure whether the technology is developed that can turn it into a more accurate science.”
Snyder has long been fascinated by savants — people with a developmental brain disorder (often autism) or brain injury who display prowess in a particular area, such as mathematics, art or music, which far exceeds the norm. Kim Peek, who provided the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man,” was a savant who could memorize entire books after a single reading, or instantly calculate what day of the week any calendar date fell on. But he had a severe mental disability that prevented him from performing simple actions such as buttoning his shirt.
Wisconsin psychologist and savant expert Darold Treffert describes a skill like Kim’s as an “island of genius that stands in stark contrast to the overall handicap.”
Other savants acquire their abilities after a severe brain injury or illness. Alonzo Clemons suffered a head injury as a toddler that left him mentally disabled, but endowed him with the ability to accurately sculpt beautiful clay animals after only briefly glimpsing them. And patients with frontotemporal dementia have been known to suddenly display artistic and musical abilities, like the successful businessman who developed dementia and started doing award-winning painting.
But not all savant abilities come with a trade-off, says Treffert. Sometimes it’s possible for otherwise normal people to have savant skills.
Snyder hypothesizes that all people possess savant-like abilities in a dormant form, but that savants have “privileged access” to less-processed, lower-level information. In a normal brain, top-down controls suppress the barrage of raw data our brains take in, enabling us to focus on the big picture.
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