Switching on your inner Rainman: Enhancing Creativity

4 May 2006

We are all capable of extraordinary Rainman-like feats of mental agility simply by turning off a specific part of the brain, according to exciting research published today by a team from the Centre for the Mind.

In a scene from the famous Hollywood movie Rainman, the character played by Dustin Hoffman miraculously counts "246!" toothpicks at lightning speed when a waitress drops them on the floor of a roadside diner. Extraordinary feats like this by autistic savants are a paradox: how do these brain-impaired individuals do it and what does this tells us about creativity?

Professor Allan Snyder, Director of the Centre for the Mind, a joint venture of the University of Sydney and the Australian National University, led a study of savant-like counting skills to find out.  The team switched off part of the brain in healthy people to replicate the savant condition.

The study, Savant-like numerosity skills revealed in normal people by magnetic pulses, which appears today in the on-line edition of the British journal Perception, investigates whether repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) can improve a healthy person’s ability to accurately guess the number of discrete elements. 

Participants were presented with 50 to 150 random elements on a monitor. Of the twelve participants, ten improved their ability to accurately guess the number of elements immediately following magnetic pulse stimulation to the left anterior temporal lobe.

Explaining why healthy individuals are usually incapable of these feats, Professor Snyder, said: "Savants have privileged access to lower level sensory information before it is packaged into holistic concepts and labels. By being 'literal', a savant sees the elements as discrete, where most of us see the patterns we already know, such as constellations in the stars. These findings suggest an artificial technique to amplify creativity itself – a creativity machine!"

“How can you join the dots up differently if you always impose known patterns on them," Professor Snyder said.


Contact: Jake O'Shaughnessy

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