James can tell you the exact time, in a second, without looking at the clock. In a split second, Jennifer can measure with her eyes whatever you want, up to a millimeter of accuracy. And Christopher speaks 24 languages, including two he invented himself. Amazing – sure. Unusual – it doesn’t have to be. According to a new theory – anyone can do it, or at least they could if they stopped thinking for a moment.
Christopher, James and Jennifer are autistic – people who score low on intelligence tests and have great communication problems with others, but are endowed with seemingly superhuman abilities in certain areas, such as music, math or art. Every tenth person with autism has unusual talents, though rare are geniuses such as Stephen Wiltshire, who with incredible precision, to the smallest detail, draws a building, or a man-computer like that in the movie Rain Man plays Dustin Hoffman. Ever since the phenomenon of ‘genius’ autism was noticed a century ago, there have been about a hundred such people.
Almost all of them are well known and scientists study their skills carefully, but no one has yet been able to establish how they do it. Theories range from the unusual enlargement of certain parts of the brain to the assumption that they have acquired extraordinary abilities because they have not dealt with anything else, but none really explains the phenomenon. The last contribution of science to the enigma of autistic ‘geniuses’ is the assumption that their abilities are not unique at all and that each of us could have them only if a little effort is made, and perhaps with the help of technology.
The idea was put forward by psychologists Allen Schneider and John Mitchell of the Mind Center of the Australian National University of Canberra. Basically, they think that ‘genius’ skills are a manifestation of the brain processes that happen to all of us, all the time, but in normal people they are suppressed – knowledge. They say: it’s not that autistic geniuses are smarter than we are, but that most of us go a step further in thinking about everything – from details and facts to meaningful concepts – and once we do, we can no longer go back.
Psychologists have formulated their theory based on the analysis of a great deal of research by ‘geniuses’, mainly those particularly endowed with mathematics. Among the discoveries they are referring to are the results of brain imaging experiments, which reveal how much unconscious brain work goes on before we become aware of our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. A visual image that falls on the retina, for example, appears in the brain as conscious perception only after a quarter of a second. Prior to this, each element of the image – color, shape, movement and location – is individually identified by various specialized brain parts. These elements then fit into a pattern that is sent to other regions of the brain, and they add meaning to it. On normal occasions we have no idea that all this is happening, we only become aware of it when the whole process is complete and we get a ‘coupled’ perception.
In normal people, the brain takes every tiny detail, processes it, and then removes most of the information from the whole and leaves only one useful idea to become aware of. The ‘genius’ lacks the removal of excess information so that they see the image in fantastically detailed components, as single dots in the photograph. Psychologists believe that everyone’s unconscious mind could, more or less instantaneously, calculate the days of the week that certain dates fall, which autistic people do very often, or accurately determine the pitch, length and sequence of a piece of music. But since the knowledge on which day of the week falls on July 1, 2070 is of no practical use, this information would be rejected before it becomes conscious. Also, because notes by themselves usually have no meaning, a normal person will hear music as a melody rather than as a series of separate tones.
When there is no data processing
If psychologists are right in assuming that each of us is capable of the wonders of the mind that make up ‘geniuses’, is it possible for us to learn to control the unconscious part of the brain and become aware of it? Nils Birbaumer from the Institute for Behavioral Neurobiology, University of Tibingen, Germany, thinks we can do it. He leads a team of scientists who have completely paralyzed people with electrodes on their heads – to amplify brain waves – and teach them to move the cursor on a computer screen with brain waves. Patients, otherwise completely immobile people, had to learn to use brain activities that are, in normal circumstances, unconscious. Birbaumer believes that it is possible to reach the unconscious cognitive processes of ‘geniuses’ in the same way, and that some people have already learned to do so, even though they themselves are not aware of it.
Birbaumer cites the example of a non-autistic student, whose skill in mathematics exceeds even that of ‘genius’. Electrical monitoring of this young man’s brain waves while calculating showed that his brain was more active than usual at first, but less active at the time before he would respond. It shows that this student is able to prevent conscious, conceptual thinking when counting, which allows him to access earlier, lower processes in the brain.
For most people, from the earliest times, the brain is focused on conceptual thinking and what is known as ‘global data processing’ – bringing together different thoughts and extracting meaning from the overall picture, instead of concentrating on the specific details of each perception. Autists seem unable to process data in this way. The consequence is a detailed but disconnected cognitive style described by autism experts as ‘weak central connectivity’. They find that the desire for ‘central connectivity’ in normal people is so powerful that it reduces perception and thought to concepts of meaning even before every detail is registered, which completely prevents us from reaching ‘lower information’.
Also, if you are interested in boosting other brain abilities, you should check out ”ELECTRICITY CAN BOOST YOUR BRAIN” , ‘‘3 SIMPLE EXERCISES TO BOOST YOUR CONCENTRATION”, ”How to Build Your Focus Using Simple Techniques”
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