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David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including "The Forgetting," "Data Smog," and "The Immortal Game." He is a correspondent for, and has contributed to[…]

The astonishing skills displayed by autistic savants are evidence not of the mystery and rarity of genius, but of the plasticity of the ordinary human mind.

Question: Why do you believe autistic savants prove the inherent potential of all brains, not the genius of a select few?


David Shenk:  Yeah, I actually took that cue from Darryl Trafford who is probably the world’s foremost authority on autistic savants and this is a really interesting idea.  We look at savants you know Rainman and things like that and we think well that’s obviously evidence of innate gifts because these guys are obviously born with different sorts of brains and it’s these…  They’re born with these gifts that enable to you know remember every calendar date going back to the year 1200 or whatever.  Well when you actually look at what is going on yes, these people are born with birth defects if that is what you want to call them.  Their brains are certainly wired differently.  There is no question about that, but it turns out that the actual skills that they acquire then come after that and that we can actually manipulate our own brains.  I mean the word is plasticity.  Everyone watching this has heard the term plasticity.  There isn’t really any…  There is a difference in quantity between what these savants are born with and what we can do with our own brains.  There isn’t really a qualitative difference.  We can alter our own brains and you don’t actually develop the skills to do what the guy in Rain Man did or these other amazing savants do until you have… those differences are already in place, so in other words it’s the process of developing these skills, not just being born with the skill or the gift and if I’m trying to do anything in this book it’s trying to help people understand that the old notion of innate, the old notion of giftedness, the notion that we are born with a certain quantity of intelligence or a quantity of talent it really isn’t there.  We’re all born with differences, no question about that.  We have genetic differences, but what those differences turn out to be in the end result, how those genetic differences actually lead to differences in traits that’s a dynamic process that we are all very much involved with on the family level, as parents, as kids ourselves, culturally, nutrition, environment.  Everything we do and everything we are is an ongoing interactive process, which affects how those genes are then going to be subsequently going to be turned into the traits that work for us and against us.

Recorded on January 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen