Is Rain Man Syndrome Real?

The condition is actually called savant syndrome

In 1988, the movie "Rain Man," starring Dustin Hoffman, introduced many to a disorder known as savant syndrome. In the film, Hoffman's character, Raymond Babbitt, has an amazing memory for baseball statistics and phone book listings. He can also count cards in blackjack.

This is a real-life condition that is officially called savant syndrome.

This article explains how people with savant syndrome function. It also talks about famous people who had this syndrome and what researchers think causes it.

A young girl playing the piano
Inti St Clair / Getty Images

Causes and Characteristics of Savant Syndrome

Savant syndrome is very rare. People with autistic spectrum disorder have been known to have savant syndrome. It can also occur later in life because of a brain injury or disease, known as acquired savant syndrome. It occurs more often in males than in females.

People with savant syndrome have a great memory that focuses in one area. These people can focus a lot on things like license plate numbers, historical dates, geography facts, lists of people (like U.S. presidents or world leaders), and other random trivia.

Some of these people are very artistic or musical. They may hear a piano concerto once and be able to play it perfectly.

Others have excellent math skills, such as being able to make extremely difficult calculations in seconds. Others can calculate calendar days quickly to pick out the day of the week for any random date in the past or present.

The Savant in History

People with savant syndrome were described in the medical literature as early as 1751. It was not until 1997 that the term "idiot savant" was used by Dr. J. Langdon Down. He was the first physician to describe Down syndrome. He explained that people with Down syndrome having low IQs but above average knowledge in certain areas. This is why he used the word "savant," the French word for "learned."

In history, there have been many important people who fit this description. They are brilliant in a specific area but do not have key social and developmental skills. Among them:

  • Kim Peek (1951-2009), a man born with brain abnormalities who was the inspiration for the film "Rain Man."
  • Tom Wiggins (1849-1908), a blind black musical talent whose developmental skills would today be described as autistic.
  • Temple Grandin (1947- ), an autistic woman known for her livestock animal behavior skills. Her story was told in the HBO movie "Temple Grandin."

Today, savant syndrome is the correct term for the disorder. While some use autistic savant to describe the condition, only around half of the people with the syndrome are autistic.

Recap

Many people believe that savant syndrome is not a real condition. It is rare but real. People with this syndrome are usually artistic or musical with amazing memories. There are many famous people in history who had savant syndrome.

Investigating Savant Syndrome

Savant syndrome is interesting to the public, but no one knows the exact number of people who have this syndrome. Some studies suggest that as many as one in 10 people with autism have some degree of savant syndrome.

There is currently no accepted cause that explains how people with savant syndrome can be both very talented and impaired. Some researchers think that it comes from an abnormality in the part of the brain that handles object perception and recognition. This area of the brain is known as the anterior temporal lobe. People with acquired savant syndrome often experience damage there.

Scientists still study the condition to get a better idea of the functions of the brain. They also hope to understand how different types of memory work separately and together.

Summary

Savant syndrome is a rare condition where people usually have an amazing memory focused in one area but have lower social and development skills. About half of people with savant syndrome are autistic. More research is needed to figure out exactly why this condition occurs but researchers believe a certain area of the brain is part of the answer. The anterior temporal lobe helps people identify, organize, and understand objects and concepts.

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  1. Treffert DA. The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philos Trans R Soc Lond, B, Biol Sci. 2009;364(1522):1351-7. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0326

Additional Reading
  • Treffert, D. "The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future." Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009; 364(1522): 1351-7.