June 27, 2007

Reading two pages at once

In yesterday's mail, a note from Barbara Partee:

Our indomitable dept secretary and chief trivia-buff Kathy Adamczyk just sent me a link to a fascinating article in the Guardian about an autistic savant, Daniel Tammet, who is both a mathematical savant and reportedly in some sense a language-learning and language-processing savant ("A genius explains", 2/12/2005). The sentence that stopped me in my tracks was one sentence not about him but about Kim Peek, the real-life Rain Man:

"Peek can read two pages simultaneously, one with each eye.".

Can that be???

There's other interesting stuff in the article -- scientists are reportedly interested because Tammet can reportedly introspect about "how he does it". (What they quote sounds entirely metaphorical to me. But what do I know?)

An article about savants that features Kim Peek among others (Darold Treffert and Gregory Wallace, "Islands of Genius", Scientific American 286(6) June 2002) doesn't mention the "read two pages simultaneously, one with each eye" business. However, an online profile of Peek, "The Mind of a Mnemonist", says that

At birth, the doctors discovered that Kim was born with a encephalocele, which is a congenital condition characterized by a herniation of the brain through a fissure in the skull. A later MRI also showed that Kim was born without a corpus callosum (the connecting tissue between the left and right hemispheres of the brain) as well as an absent anterior commisure, and damage to the cerebellum.

Congenital lack of a corpus callosum and anterior commissure would help explain what the same source describes as "the ability to read two pages of literature simultaneously with a 98% rentention rate".

Among the many theories about the etiology of autism, there's one that attributes it to a less extreme form of lack of white matter: "Autism as lack of neurological coordination", 7/31/2004.

[Update -- Randy Alexander wrote to remind us that the title "Mind of a Mmemonist" is an allusion to a famous book by A.R. Luria.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 27, 2007 06:18 AM