In the preceding section I described the concept that certain cognitive functions appear to be mediated by specific portions of the brain (i.e., modular organization). By modular, I do not mean that these modules are encapsulated to the extent that modules cannot influence each other. The normal person's cerebral cortex is highly connected, and it is the connectivity between these modules that might be important in creative innovation. I also mentioned the postulate that although many creative people have highly developed talents, outstanding talent alone does not ensure creativity.
People who have autistic spectrum syndromes (pervasive developmental disorder, Asperger's syndrome) are characterized by the abnormal development of social skills, impairments of communication, and a severely restricted repertoire of interests and stereotypic behaviors. Some people with autistic syndromes develop extraordinary skills in one domain. In spite of these extraordinary skills in one domain, they might have little or no skills in other domains. Benjamin Rush, who many consider one of the fathers of American medicine, in 1789 reported the case of Thomas Fuller. This man had the special ability to perform calendar computations. For example, Benjamin Rush asked him how many seconds a man, who was 70 years, 17 days, and
12 hours old, had lived. Fuller thought about this problem for about a minute and 30 seconds and responded, "2,210,500,800 seconds." This response was correct and even included 17 leap years. Although Fuller was able to perform these amazing computations, he understood little about math other than counting and calendar computations (Treffert & Wallace, 2002).
Subsequently, in 1887, J. Langdon Down, who worked in the Earlswood Asylum in London and was the person who first described Down's syndrome, reported 10 patients who overall had low intelligence, but like Fuller, in specific domains they had very special talents. He called these people "idiot" (low IQ) "savants" (from the French root savoir, to know). Almost all of Down's idiot savants were men, and men appear primarily to constitute most other reports of this rare condition.
The special talents of these idiot savants have been reported to occur in several domains. In addition to the calendar skill demonstrated by Fuller, there have musical savants like Thomas Bethune, who had a vocabulary of less than 100 words but could play, without written musical scores, 4,000 different pieces on the piano (Treffert & Wallace, 2002). Although different idiot savants can have different types of skills, almost all these skills appear to depend on an extraordinary memory. Down also described a boy who could recite each word of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon. Hou et al. (2000) studied six artistic savants, and in spite of their great artistic skill, all six demonstrated a strong preference for a single art medium and showed a restricted variation in artistic themes. The finding that in spite of great talent there was a paucity of creativity also comes from a study by Craig and Baron-Cohen (1999), who used the Torrence test and other means of assessing creativity and found improvised creativity in people with autism. A. R. Luria (1968) in his The Mind of a Mnemonist wrote about a man with a remarkable memory, but unlike the idiot savants I mentioned earlier, he was not severely intellectually disabled. With his excellent memory he did very well in school, and many people had high expectations for his having a successful career after he completed school, but he was a failure in almost every occupation he attempted. The only thing in which he succeeded was displaying his extraordinary memory in shows. Luria suggested that in spite of this man's outstanding memory and academic record, he was a failure because his ability to manipulate knowledge was poor. Success in many endeavors depends on creativity, and although one needs a good memory to be creative, creativity does not solely depend on memory or learned skills but requires the manipulation of stored knowledge.
The reason why savants have these remarkable memories and skills is unknown. Treffert and Wallace (2002) suggested that the savants' skills are mediated by the right hemisphere and are related to the left hemisphere's dysfunction that disinhibits or releases the right hemisphere from the left hemisphere's control. There is little or no evidence to support this postulate in people with autism. Many savants, as I mentioned, do have exceptional number and math skills. Studies of brain-damaged individuals appear to indicate that it is the left hemisphere that is important for number skills and calculations. In addition, some savants recall every word from entire texts, and in most people it is the left hemisphere that is important for mediating language and speech. Furthermore, children with early or congenital damage to the right hemisphere, as well as those who have their left hemisphere removed or the callosum cut, are not typically savants.
I think that there are several possible explanations for savants' extraordinary domain-specific skills and their difficulty with manipulating knowledge or thinking creatively. One possibility is that the savant's brain is organized such that they have all their eggs in one basket. Thus, unlike normal people who have multiple representational modules that are highly connected, savants have primarily one or two extremely well-developed systems at the expense of the normal development of other systems. It is also possible that the anatomic modules in the brains of savants are poorly connected. During normal development connectivity might, in part, allow specialization by exerting inhibitory control. Thus, when one is learning language, not only does the left hemisphere develop language-based representations but the left hemisphere also prevents or inhibits the right hemisphere from developing these same representations and thus allows the right hemisphere to develop different representations. After these different representational modules are developed, connections between these modules might allow communication between these representational systems, which is so important in creative efforts. Perhaps savants have impovished connections between modules, and this deficient connectivity induces constriction of cognitive processes. Support for this connection hypothesis comes from the observation that the size of the corpus callosum in people with autism is smaller than in the control participants (Egaas, Courchesne, & Saitoh, 1995). In chapter 9 I discuss the importance of the frontal lobe in divergent thinking. People with autism have limited divergent thinking suggesting that their frontal lobe functions might be impaired.
Catecholamines might influence the size of semantic networks such that with increased brain catecholamines, cognitive networks can become constricted. In addition, giving high doses of catecholamine agonists (e.g., apomorphine) to animals can induce many of the signs of autism, such as stereotypic behaviors. There is also some evidence that people with autism might have increased levels of catecholamines and that medications that reduce the influence of catecholamines might help people with autism. In the next chapter I discuss the role of neurotransmitters on creativity.
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Autism is a developmental disorder that manifests itself in early childhood and affects the functioning of the brain, primarily in the areas of social interaction and communication. Children with autism look like other children but do not play or behave like other children. They must struggle daily to cope and connect with the world around them.