The more I learn about the human brain, the more awesome it becomes. The way it can store and retrieve knowledge, in itself, is phenomenal. Then there are the relationships, new thoughts about old ideas, the way different parts can come into play compensating when part of the brain is injured and so much more.

What brought all this on was the rereading of the book "Extraordinary People" by Darold Treffert, M.D., in which Treffert describes those with savant syndrome. Though often referred to as idiot savants, Treffert believes that's an unfair label; thus -- savant syndrome.

In the movie "Rain Man," Dustin Hoffman portrayed a savant and did so exceedingly well. Incapable of managing most of his personal affairs, he was super-brilliant at accomplishing specific mental tasks. Treffert was an adviser on that film and claims they had patients at his Winnebago Mental Health Institute who could perform each spectacular action "Rain Man" did in that movie -- memorizing sections of a town's phone book, quickly spotting 270 toothpicks spilled on the floor, counting cards in a casino, etc.

As Treffert asserts, the savants show us what amazing feats the brain can do. Unfortunately, in their cases, these dramatic accomplishments come at the expense of almost all everyday activities.


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Picture these: twins in their late 20s who can tell you the weather on every day of their adult lives; a young fellow who can take a sheet of newspaper and peel it into two sheets (a dexterous savant); some who can dismantle and reassemble watches quickly; and others able to hear a musical selection only once and repeat it accurately (as Mozart was said to do).

OK, what about the rest of us, learning what has to be assimilated in everyday living with only an occasional vivid memory? For example, I can remember it was a calm but overcast late fall day in Oakland when I heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Other December days that year remain out of reach.

Two examples of normal individuals with outstanding mental abilities would be Ken Jennings, the long-running champion on "Jeopardy" and chess master George Koltanowski. A college graduate and computer scientist, Jennings' vast knowledge and quick responses enabled him to win 74 consecutive programs -- a quiz program record!

How well could Koltanowski's brain handle chess? Not only did he have a chess column in a local newspaper for decades, he once defeated 56 opponents simultaneously while blindfolded.

I witnessed a bit of irony when Koltanowski gave a blindfold exhibition at San Francisco State University one summer. While playing two opponents who could see what they were doing, one of them placed his queen opposite the blindfolded master in an effort to slow him down.

"Oh, so you want to trade queens? Of course, I could take your queen with my knight instead of my queen," he said.

As the opponent and onlookers gasped at seeing the mistake, Koltanowski laughed, saying, "Don't tell me you didn't see it!"

Contact Joe King at alamedanews@bayareanewsgroup.com.