Allan Snyder, director of Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney is using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to slow down or speed up various parts of the brain and by doing so appears to be able to unlock savant intellectual abilities dormant in many minds.
As remarkable as the cat-drawing lesson was, it was just a hint of Snyder's work and its implications for the study of cognition. He has used TMS dozens of times on university students, measuring its effect on their ability to draw, to proofread and to perform difficult mathematical functions like identifying prime numbers by sight. Hooked up to the machine, 40 percent of test subjects exhibited extraordinary, and newfound, mental skills. That Snyder was able to induce these remarkable feats in a controlled, repeatable experiment is more than just a great party trick; it's a breakthrough that may lead to a revolution in the way we understand the limits of our own intelligence -- and the functioning of the human brain in general.
Snyderr claims TMS can rapidly improve drawing abilitiies
Professor Allan Snyder and colleague Elaine Mulcahy say tests on 17 volunteers show their device can improve drawing skills within 15 minutes.
Some scientists think he may be on to something important.
In a 1999 paper, Snyder and his colleague John Mitchell challenged the compulsive-practice explanation for savant abilities, arguing that the same skills are biologically latent in all of us. "Everyone in the world was skeptical," says Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego. "Snyder deserves credit for making it clear that savant abilities might be extremely important for understanding aspects of human nature and creativity."
Others think he has not published enough big rigorous studies on the phenomenon to be able to judge it.
"I wrote a comment two or three years ago in Nature, on his theory on autism and early information processing. I never commented on his TMS stuff and the reason is I'm a little bit skeptical. And there's no data so far available supporting his claims," said Professor Niels Birbaumer, of the University of Tubingen, Germany.
For some more relevant reading see Darold A. Treffert's articles on savants which include his own comments on the results of studies of TMS which he calls repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)