A fascinating look at the relationship between genius and autism, with particular focus on the phenomenon of savants; a small group of enigmatic talents with extraordinary mental abilities.
Savants number less than 100 worldwide. Some can work out five-digit multiplication in their heads, or recite thousands of books by heart. Others can play a piano melody after hearing it only once. Over half of savants are autistic; others develop these super human talents only after brain injury.
With scientists now able to see billions of neurons at work in the brain, experts are now investigating whether it is in fact a defect that turns a person into a genius. Could the giant minds of the past - from Newton, to Mozart, to Albert Einstein have been autistic?
Howard Potter is not related to Harry Potter. And his conjuring tricks are real. Howard's talents were discovered while he was counting peas. He was still a child when, while having lunch at his home in Bournemouth on the British South Coast, he started to complain badly that his brother Duncan "had two more peas" - after a glance at both plates. His parents recounted the peas and noted astounded: Howard was absolutely right.
Howard Potter is not a sorcerer's apprentice: he is what neuroscientists call a "Savant", a "knowing one". There are around 100 gifted savants worldwide acknowledged by science. Their extraordinary abilities are mostly originated by a defect during birth - a faulty connection among neurons in the brain. Savants and their mysterious talents are the most fascinating objects of contemporary brain research.
Savants remember infinite numbers, dates or relations - as natural as we walk or ride a bike. At the age of 6 or 7 they can play the piano or compose like Mozart. They can draw a picture of complex buildings by heart after one look at it or raise two digit numbers by the power of 33 without calculator in seconds. They can recall precisely every single detail of each day of their entire life.
Where does this tremendous knowledge origin from? Is there something of it in all of us? How can our normal brains get access to these dormant abilities: to an unlimited memory, to the creativity of someone like Einstein, or to the ability to read thoughts? According Dr. Darold Treffert, who has been the world leading expert on Savants since the 1960s (and scientific consultant of this series), savants are a unique window to the human brain. "Until we can't understand the savants", claims the godfather of savant research, "we can't understand ourselves."
"Beautiful Minds - A Voyage into the brain" presents a series of super-talented savants like the "real" Rainman, Kim Peek, the inspiration of Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie "Rainman", who knows about 12,000 books by heart - word by word; or Matt Savage a 13 year-old piano and composition genius, who released his first CD with own jazz compositions at the age of 7; or Stephen Wiltshire (Part II.), nicknamed the "living camera" due to his unbelievably precise drawing by heart, or Temple Grandin, who looks at the world through the eyes of animals, or the German Calculating Champion Rudiger Gamm, who raises within seconds 56 to the power of 33 without calcualtor or recalls over 160 decimal digits of 62 divided by 167.