Is Rain Man Syndrome Real?

In 1988, the movie "Rain Man," starring Dustin Hoffman, introduced many of us to a disorder known as savant syndrome. In the film, Hoffman's character, Raymond Babbitt, is revealed to have an astounding memory for baseball statistics and phone book listings, as well as an innate talent for counting cards in blackjack.

While some may dismiss the syndrome as pure Hollywood fantasy, there are those with whose memory and developmental skills qualify them as real-life "Rain Men."

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

Causes and Characteristics of Savant Syndrome

Savant syndrome is extremely rare. While people with autistic spectrum disorder have been known to have savant syndrome, it can also develop in later life as a result of a brain injury or disease (a condition referred to as acquired savant syndrome). For reasons unknown, it occurs more frequently in males than in females.

People with savant syndrome have an amazing memory that tends to be focused in one area. The most commonly described behavior is an obsessive preoccupation with things like license plate numbers, historical dates, geography facts, lists of people (like U.S. presidents or world leaders), and other sundry trivia.

Some of these individuals have startling artistic or musical talents. They may, for example, hear a piano concerto once and be able to play it perfectly. Others have remarkable mathematical skills, such as being able to make complex calculations in seconds. Others still are able to perform calendar calculations, almost instantly providing the day of the week for any random date, 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, however, that the term "idiot savant" was coined by Dr. J. Langdon Down (the same physician responsible for christening Down syndrome). In his description of the disorder, Dr. Down characterized such as individuals as having low IQs but exceptional select knowledge. It was for this reason that he used the word "savant," the French word for "learned."

In history, there have been a number of notable figures who fit these characteristics, demonstrating exceptional brilliance in a specific area while lacking key social and developmental skills. Among them:

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

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

Investigating Savant Syndrome

While the concept of savant syndrome continues to fascinate the public, there are no definitive statistics as to the number of individuals who actually possess these skills. Some studies have suggested that as many as one in 10 people with autism may have some degree of savant syndrome.

To date, there is no accepted cognitive theory explaining the combination of talents and deficits in people with savant syndrome. Some researchers have proposed that abnormalities in the anterior temporal lobe (the part of the brain responsible for object perception and recognition) may play a part given that the people with acquired savant syndrome often experience damage there.

To this end, scientists continue to study the condition in the hope of gaining better insight into the functions of the brain and how different types of memory work independently and in tandem.

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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.