Developing Extraordinary Abilities Through Savant Syndrome (2024)

The savant syndrome is a rare psychological phenomenon in which people manifest extraordinary skills beyond their usual abilities (Rudzinski et al., 2023). Here, we will discuss possible causes of this phenomenon, as well as how savant abilities might be elicited.

There are three recognized types of this syndrome:

Congenital. Affected individuals typically have an associated developmental mental disability, and approximately half of these have a diagnosis of autism. In 2015, there were 287 known cases of this type (Treffert & Rebedew, 2015).

Acquired. In 2015, there were 32 known cases of neurotypical individuals who developed savant abilities following a head injury, stroke, onset of dementia, or other central nervous system disorder (Treffert & Rebedew, 2015).

Sudden onset. In 2021 there were 11 reports of neurotypical individuals without developmental disabilities or a central nervous system disorder who suddenly developed transient or permanent savant abilities (Treffert & Ries, 2021).

Developing Extraordinary Abilities Through Savant Syndrome (1)

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Savant abilities usually relate to five general areas (Rudzinski et al., 2023; Treffert, 2009):

Art. This has usually involved drawing, painting, or sculpting.

Calendar computation. Savants can quickly calculate the day of the week of any date in history.

Mathematics. Involves lightning calculation or the ability to compute prime numbers, sometimes in the absence of simple mathematical abilities.

Music. Usually, this has involved the performance of music, most often with the piano. Some have developed perfect pitch, and some have composed music once they have honed their abilities to perform.

Visuospatial/mechanical skills. These include the ability to measure distances precisely without instruments, to accurately construct complex structures, or to make maps.

Less commonly reported savant abilities include sudden extensive mastery of one or more foreign languages, unusual sensory discrimination in smell, perfect appreciation of passing time without access to a clock, and outstanding knowledge in specific fields such as neurophysiology, statistics, history, or navigation (Treffert, 2009).

Savant syndrome is typically associated with a single extraordinary ability in affected individuals.

Talented savants are considered those whose savant abilities are highly developed in comparison to the individual’s abilities in other areas of their life.

Prodigious savants are those whose skills are so outstanding that they would be spectacular even in a non-impaired person. In 2009, there were fewer than 100 known such people in the world. (Treffert, 2009).

Etiology of Savant Abilities

Speculated mechanisms for developing savant syndrome include that left brain dysfunction leads to the right brain developing new abilities to compensate for a loss of function on the left, or uncovering of pre-existing right brain abilities that had been suppressed by the left brain (Treffert, 2009). Evidence for these mechanisms include:

  • The reporting of a child who developed savant abilities after a left brain injury (Brink, 1980).
  • The painting skills of an artist improved dramatically after a left occipital stroke (Rudzinski et al., 2023).
  • The loss of function in the left anterior frontal lobe or left temporal lobe in frontotemporal lobe dementia has been associated with the development of savant syndrome (Hou et al., 2000; Miller et al., 2000).
  • Males outnumber females 6:1 in savant syndrome, as compared to a 4:1 ratio in autism spectrum disorders. Since the prenatal left brain hemisphere develops later than the right hemisphere, it is speculated that it is more likely to be exposed to detrimental prenatal influences. For instance, in male fetuses, testosterone can slow growth and impair neuronal development, which likely has a greater effect on the left brain (Geschwind & Galaburda, 2003).
  • Stimulation of the left frontotemporal area with transcranial magnetic pulses can block left hemispheric function and has been demonstrated to be associated with developing skills similar to those seen in savant syndrome (Young et al., 2004).

My Hypothesis

From an evolutionary perspective, it never made sense to me that individuals would possess a latent extraordinary right-brain ability that would rarely be expressed in the absence of brain damage. What evolutionary advantage would be gained by the resource expenditure required to develop such an ability were it unlikely ever to manifest?

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If the right brain acts to compensate for left brain dysfunction, why would this lead to the development of extraordinary abilities rather than the resumption of usual abilities?

Experiences from my work with hypnosis have helped shape a new hypothesis regarding the nature of the right brain ability that is usually suppressed by an intact left brain.

  • With hypnosis, when the conscious mind is calmed, one of my 14-year-old patients has demonstrated a savant-like ability to communicate in writing in a foreign language that he had never studied. This patient told me that he did not understand the language, but rather that his subconscious transmitted the language from “God.”
  • A 13-year-old patient demonstrated the ability to write sophisticated poetry while in hypnosis (Anbar, 2021), which his subconscious stated was the result of channeling the poetry from “muses.”
  • Some of my school-age patients have reported, with or without hypnosis, that they saw “visions” of people who were not from this world and yet seemed “real.” I have discussed with them that when preschool children often talk about “imaginary friends” perhaps they are similarly seeing “visions.”
  • Based on studies of brain function and from interviewing patients about their hypnosis experiences over the past 25 years, I have come to believe that much subconscious activity occurs in the right brain:
    • In most people, the left brain hemisphere is dominant for language (Knecht, et al., 2000). Thus, when we talk about how we consciously think or feel, it is the left brain that is speaking.
    • Some studies from people whose connection between the brain hemispheres is disrupted appear to demonstrate that each brain hemisphere can think independently, although this conclusion recently has been doubted (de Haan, 2020).
    • When I have taught patients’ subconscious to speak with me, after returning to conscious awareness, patients often say they do not recall the interactions with their subconscious. Perhaps this is because the left brain is not fully aware of right brain content during a state of hypnosis.
    • The subconscious of one of my 13-year-old patients said it was left-handed while the patient was right-handed. (Note that the left hand is controlled by the right brain.) This subconscious said that during sports, the patient played left-handed because it was better at sports than the conscious (Anbar, 2001).

From these observations, I formed the following hypothesis about an ability of the right brain that can be activated through hypnosis or because of savant syndrome: The right brain can serve as a conduit to information from outside of the individual brain, similar to psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of how we tap into a collective unconscious (Doyle, 2018).

I speculate that in neurotypical individuals the left brain suppresses the right brain conduit ability to prevent confusion between reality and information from outside of our usual reality. Such suppression may, in part, be the result of how preschoolers in the Western world are taught to think of “imaginary friends” (which may represent images from outside of our reality) as “pretend.”

When the left brain is damaged, perhaps the conduit activity is restored, which allows individuals access to extraordinary information including that leading to savant abilities.


The existence of savants pushes us to ask whether it is possible for neurotypical individuals to tap into extraordinary abilities. The use of hypnosis may be one such route for some individuals.


Anbar RD. (2001). Automatic word processing: A new forum for hypnotic expression. Am J Clin Hypnosis. 44:27-36.

Anbar RD. (2021). Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Brink T. (1980). Idiot savant with unusual mechanical ability. Am J Psychiatry. 137:250-251.

de Haan EHF, Corballis PM, Hillyard SA, et al. (2020). Split brain: What we know now and why is it important for understanding consciousness. Neuropsychol Rev. 30:224-233.

Doyle, DJ. (2018). What Does it Mean to be Human? Life, Death, Personhood and the Transhumanist Movement. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Geschwind N, Galaburda AM. (2003). Cerebral Lateralization: Biological Mechanisms, Associations, and Pathology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hou C, Miller BL, Cummings JL, Goldberg M, Mychack P, Bottino V, Benson DF. (2000). Autistic savants. Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol Behav Neurol. 13:29-38.

Knecht S, Drager B, Deppe M, Lobe L, Lohmann H, Floel A, Ringelstein EB, Henningsen H. (2000). Handedness and hemispheric dominance in healthy humans. Brain. 123 pt. 12:2512-2518.

Rudzinkski G, Pozarowska K, Brzuszkiewicz K, Soroka E. (2023). Psychiatr Pol. Jun 17:1-11.

Treffert DA. (2009). The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Phil Trans Soc B. 364:1351-1357.

Treffert DA, Rebedew DL. (2015). The savant syndrome registry: a preliminary report. WMJ. 114:158-162.

Treffert DA, Ries HJ. (2021). The sudden savant: a new form of extraordinary abilities. WMJ. 120:69-73.

Young RL, Ridding MC, Morrell TL. (2004). Switching skills on by turning off part of the brain. Neurocase. 10:215-222.

Developing Extraordinary Abilities Through Savant Syndrome (2024)
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