“It turns out that all brain have hidden superhuman abilities. We just have to use the right keys to unlock them. One such key is synesthesia.”
So, begins Dr. Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow’s plunge into the mysteries of human perception explored in the team’s non-fiction debut “The Superhuman Mind.” As researchers, the two scientists encounter individuals with rather unusual talents for memory and sensory integration. The book’s thesis is that people with extraordinary capabilities (think Vegas-toppling card counters or synesthetes who experience numbers as colors) are not born with this capacity; rather, every brain is capable of reorganizing to bypass slow thinking in favor of manipulating information to solve problems in new ways.
The author Berit Brogaard was motivated to study synesthesia due to her own experience with intense visual cues evoked by fear-inducing thoughts. She tells a heart-pounding account of hiking in an Australian rainforest that is home to poisonous Eastern brown snakes, the second most venomous in the world. The author was hiking when she experienced a bluish-green visual cue that stopped her in her tracks – her fear-linked clouding of the visual field. Fear invaded her body even before she was aware of the venomous snake hissing at her from the trail.
The book is the most compelling when it delves into mysterious cases of individuals who see profound changes in memory capacity after an injury. Take for example, the case of Orlando who received a blow to the head during a baseball game. After the accident, he began to associate dates on the calendar with specific days of the week. According to the account, he maintains the ability to remember in exquisite detail the events of each specific day after his accident. This memory prowess does not extend to dates that occurred prior to the incident. Where the book falls short is in doing more than simply describing an interesting case study. The authors briefly make note that he received an fMRI that revealed “several regions on the left and right side of the brain were involved in the calendar calculations” and leave their explanation for his newfound skill at that.
It is overly simplified descriptions of the human brain that have me pausing before giving this book a glowing recommendation. In describing the case of Jason, a 32-year old man who sustained a traumatic blow to the head during an assault, the author’s describe his acquisition of exceptional artistic and mathematical skills after his injury. An interesting case, however, they explain the phenomena as a shift from left-hemisphere thinking. In this outdated way of thinking about neural networks, they propose that “left-hemisphere skills” relate to logic and evaluating mathematical problems.
My thoughts on this book are that the authors encountered a collection of fascinating patients ranging from synesthetes to trauma-acquired savants. When they stick to explanations of their patients, the work follows in the wondrous tradition of writers and neurologists like V.S. Ramachandran or Oliver Sachs. While the authors present interesting case studies, their descriptions of neural mechanisms underlying these conditions are superficial. They rely on Malcolm Gladwell to explain mathematical savants rather than neuroscience. The authors claim that savants have an obsession and love for algorithms that enable them to put in their “10,000 hours” of studying that accounts for their exceptional abilities rather than differences in their brains. This enables the authors to conclude that anyone of us is capable of reaching savant levels in studying mathematics. A discussion of these principles without discussing plasticity leaves the neuroscience audience skeptical of the profundity of the hypotheses presented in the book.
Images by Jooyeun Lee.