This is an interesting article, albeit breathless and probably completely deluded, about acquired savantism:  people suffering traumatic brain injury and as a result developing a talent that they did not have before.  Here’s at least one bit that sounds legit:

Last spring, Snyder published what many consider to be his most substantive work. He and his colleagues gave 28 volunteers a geometric puzzle that has stumped laboratory subjects for more than 50 years. The challenge: Connect nine dots, arrayed in three rows of three, using four straight lines without retracing a line or lifting the pen. None of the subjects could solve the problem. Then Snyder and his colleagues used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to temporarily immobilize the same area of the brain destroyed by dementia in Miller’s acquired savants. The noninvasive technique, which is commonly used to evaluate brain damage in stroke patients, delivers a weak electrical current to the scalp through electrodes, depolarizing or hyperpolarizing neural circuits until they have slowed to a crawl. After tDCS, more than 40 percent of the participants in Snyder’s experiment solved the problem. (None of those in a control group given placebo tDCS identified the solution.)

(I know this problem because it was presented to us as a brain teaser when I was in 2nd grade.  Nobody got it. The solution while quite simple is “difficult” to see because you instinctively self-impose the unstated rule that your pencil cannot leave the square.)

The suggestion is that with some drugs or surgery we could all unlock some hidden sensitivity or creativity that is latent within us. Forget about whether any of the anecdotes in the article are true examples of the phenomenon (the piano guy almost certainly is not.  Watch the video, he’s doing what anyone with some concentrated practice can do.  There is no evidence that he has acquired a natural, untrained facility at the piano.  And anyway even if we accept the hypothesis about brain damage and perception/concentration why should we believe that a blow to the head can give you a physical ability that normally takes months or years of exercise to acquire?)

The examples aside, there is reason to believe that something like this could be possible.  At least the natural counterargument is wrong:  our brains should already be using whatever talents they have to their fullest.  It would be an evolutionary waste to build the structure to do something useful and not actually use it.  This argument is wrong but not because playing the piano and sculpting bronze bulls are not valuable survival skills.  Neither is Soduku but we have that skill because its one way to apply a deeper, portable skill that can also be usefully applied.  No, the argument is wrong because it ignores the second-best nature of the evolutionary optimum.

It could be that we have a system that takes in tons of sensory information all of which is potentially available to us at a conscious level but in practice is finely filtered for just the most relevant details.  While the optimal level of detail might vary with the circumstances the fineness of the filter could have been selected for the average case.  That’s the second best optimum if it is too complex a problem to vary the level of detail according to circumstances.  If so, then artificial intervention could improve on the second-best by suppressing the filter at chosen times.

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