On the Brain Map to Genius

We’ve all heard about it before or have witnessed it in some form of media. The awkward, silent boy sits quietly by himself in the corner. Although he is sitting his demeanor is far from calm: his head twitches, his fingers collapse together in fidgety entanglements, and his body rocks back and forth with constant frequency. All the while, his eyes remain glued onto some inanimate object in the distance. To the causal bystander, the young boy suffers from autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotypical patterns of behavior. However, those who know the boy understand that there is far more to his physical quirks than meets the eye. The boy sitting in front of them is, in fact, an extraordinary talent in calendar calculating.

Whether it be congenital or acquired, savant syndrome has fascinated scientists for years. Individuals with savant syndrome demonstrate outstanding, domain-specific mental capabilities in art, calendar calculating, and/or mathematics despite suffering from severe mental disabilities in behavioral, cognitive, and emotional domains. For example, a savant may remarkably pinpoint the exact day of the week of any given date (almost instantaneously) but lack complete awareness of basic time facts, such as the number of minutes in an hour. Still, these “islands of genius” exhibit some superpower-like abilities that even the most celebrated prodigies wished they possessed. Only one question remains: what exactly goes on in their brains and how do they differ from your “average” genius?

Although research in the field of savants remains scarce, one group of scientists from Germany recently compared the neural architectural brain activity of a 45-year old calendar-calculating and art savant (CD) to a 35-year old math prodigy (AB). They hypothesized that if the brain is modular in neural organization (i.e. the functional components of all brains operate separate from each other with respect to specific mental domains), then calendar calculating should demonstrate considerable similarities in brain activity between CD and AB during performance.

A special calendar task was constructed for the study whereby 56 past and future dates (excluding the day of the week), covering periods between 1100 and 1800, and 2200 and 2800, were presented for 2000 ms at the beginning of each trial. Immediately after, a template of four possible weekdays was presented. Through button pressing, the subjects had to choose the correct day corresponding to the formerly presented date. Functional data for both participants were collected using functional MRI (fMRI) from the start of the presented date, through the mental processing period, and ended after the targeted button pressing selection.

Contrary to their hypothesis, CD and AB adopted different brain strategies during performance. CD displayed activation patterns in the left frontal, bilateral parietal and occipital, right thalamic, and right cerebellar regions and across the cingulated gyrus and left insula. This suggested that CD recruited cortical networks related to visual processing, as well as subcortical regions and the cerebellum which are associated with motor and/or procedural/implicit processing. In contrast, AB’s activation patterns were most pronounced in the left inferior frontal and left inferior parietal regions, and in the right precuneus. Activation of these regions suggested that the strategy employed was based on number vector knowledge and rules, serving as a marker system from which the subject easily calculated or allocated the respective weekday to a given date.

Based on these differences, the authors concluded that activation patterns produced by complex mental processes can vary considerably across individuals even when performing the same tasks within a particular mental domain. Thus, these differences should be considered while studying neural architectural activity rather than focusing exclusively on the modular organization of the brain. In the case of calendar counting, performance may be strongly influenced by unique and individualistic developmental states, learning histories, and idiosyncrantic strategies. In other words, unless you were born with it, grew up under the right environment, and the universe was feeling highly circumstantial that day, the chances of developing savant-like abilities is extremely unlikely.

So what kind of practical advice is available for the average person on their desired mental climb to Einstein-status? To be honest, very little, if nothing at all. Unless congenital, the only other reported cases of savants occur after severe trauma (e.g. brain injury, stroke) and it is not recommend to place intentional harm on the brain in hopes of acquiring a “superpower.” Until then, we can remain challenged and fascinated by this mysterious convoluted organ while enjoying our own abilities to fly and dodge bullets…in our dreams.


National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Autism Fact Sheet. May 4, 2012.

Fehr T, Wallace GL, Erhard P, & Herrmann M (2011). The neural architecture of expert calendar calculation: a matter of strategy? Neurocase, 17 (4), 360-71 PMID: 21547846

Image via Korn / Shutterstock.

Amy Wong, MS

Amy Wong, MS, is a medical writer and conducts traumatic brain injury research in a large academic institution. She holds a Master’s of Science from the University of Toronto under the department of Pharmacology. Her studies pertained to the selective field of neuropsychopharmacology examining the biological implications of post-stroke depression.
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