Have you ever had your parents or your instructors in school say to you, “Put your thinking caps on” before giving you a problem to solve? In the future, this may actually be a possibility, thanks to scientific studies by those two men, who study brain function and the possibilities for enhancement.
Allan Snyder and Michael Weisend are at the forefront of enhancing cognitive performance using technology that can give us privileged access to raw sensory detail and improve creativity and pattern-recognition. Snyder, for example, studied the way autistic-savants think in comparison to normal people, to understand what occurs in the brain.
Autism is a neural developmental disorder that affects social and communication skills. Within the millions of autism-effected people in the world, about 10% are considered “savants.” The difference between savants and normal autistic individuals, is how their brain functions. Almost all savants have a common trait that makes them unique from the general population, which is a prodigious memory of a special type. The memory functions tend to be very deep, and also very narrow. The brain’s ability to calculate specific mathematical details, for example, or remember particular events of history for years at a time.
If you’ve never seen the movie “Rainman” with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, I highly recommend it. Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant who’s amazing abilities with memory recall and mathematics allows for exceptional cognitive performance in specific areas, but without the social implications of the data. For example, he’s easily able to compute arithmetic problems in his head within seconds, but doesn’t see the significance of what the numbers mean. He can count money extremely fast, but he has no ability to understand what money is really for, or what the numbers that have calculated actually do.
Savants’ minds work in a way that many people could benefit from experiencing at certain points throughout our lives. If we were able to better understand the way the brain operates, and create a way to temporarily gain such traits, we could be more productive when it mattered most. That’s where Allan Snyder comes in.
Because he’s been successful in understanding the differences in functionality, Snyder has developed a sort of thinking cap, which when worn by a normal individual, will enhance the right brain, and give us more of the literal details in the world.
As humans, our cognitive abilities are relatively limited to understanding the world in terms of the big picture. As Snyder puts it, we see the big pieces, but not the little pieces that make up those big pieces:
“An autistic savant is someone who has the ability to see the parts and not the whole. They have privileged access to unconscious details; unconscious processes, that all of us have, but they are beyond our conscious awareness.”
Would it be great, if we could pick up on some of the details that savants retain? What could we accomplish it we had, as Snyder puts it, “a dash of autism” in our ways of thinking, and conceptualizing new ideas? Imagine a device that you could use to find the answers to complex solutions. Science is all about understanding the world around us, and with this understanding, we can enhance the quality of our lives.
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