The Superhuman Mind: Free The Genius In Your Brain

Paperback | February 5, 2019

byBerit Brogaard, Phd, Kristian Marlow, Ma

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Two researchers delve inside the lives and brains of geniuses, savants, and virtuosos, and along the way reveal how readers can tap extraordinary mental abilities that they unknowingly already possess.
 
As psychologists and researchers studying extraordinary mental abilities, Berit
Brogaard, Ph.D., and Kristian Marlow, M.A., constantly meet people with astonishing talents—card counters and memory champions, blind people who can navigate the world using echolocation, musical virtuosos and math geniuses whose abilities suddenly appeared after a lightning strike or a blow to the head, and synesthetes, people whose sensory systems allow them to see letters and numbers as colors, experience music as a physical sensation, and much else. In fact, Brogaard herself has an unusual form of synesthesia that once saved her life.
           
The Superhuman Mind
takes us inside the lives and brains of geniuses, savants, virtuosos, and a variety of ordinary people who have acquired truly extraordinary talents. Although these may seem like eclectic cases, the reality is that these gifted individuals have managed to gain conscious access to areas of the brain that normally operate far below our level of awareness. Superhuman mental ability is not a mysterious, impenetrable attribute reserved for a few special people who were born lucky. In fact, it’s probably something closer to an innate aptitude that lies dormant in the great majority of us. Delving into the neurological underpinnings of these abilities, the authors even reveal how we can acquire some of them ourselves, from perfect pitch and lightning-fast mathematical calculations to super-charged creativity, and look ahead to what possibilities for cognitive improvement may exist in the future.

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Two researchers delve inside the lives and brains of geniuses, savants, and virtuosos, and along the way reveal how readers can tap extraordinary mental abilities that they unknowingly already possess.   As psychologists and researchers studying extraordinary mental abilities, Berit Brogaard, Ph.D., and Kristian Marlow, M.A., constantl...

Berit Brogaard, D.M.Sci., Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami. Her educational background includes a medical degree in neuroscience and a doctorate in philosophy. Her areas of research include perception, synesthesia, blindsight, consciousness, ne...
Format:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8 × 5.31 × 0.72 inPublished:February 5, 2019Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0399573526

ISBN - 13:9780399573521

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HUDSON STREET PRESSAn imprint of Penguin Random House LLC375 Hudson StreetNew York, New York 10014penguin.comCopyright © 2015 by Berit Brogaard and Kristian MarlowPenguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.Edward Adelson’s Checkerboard Illusion © 1995 by Edward H. AdelsonDog drawings © 2003 by Lawrence OsborneSpot-the-Difference image © 2014 by Gareth SouthwellLIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATABrogaard, Berit. The superhuman mind : free the genius in your brain / Berit Brogaard, PhD, and Kristian Marlow, MA. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-698-19036-8 1. Self-actualization (Psychology) 2. Self-perception. I. Marlow, Kristian. II. Title. BF697.5.S43B75 2015 153.9—dc23 2014041967While the authors have made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the authors assumes any responsibility for errors or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.Cover design by Matt Dorfman Cover illustration originally published in Old-Time Anatomical Illustrations, Dover Publications, 2005 Title PageCopyrightForeword by Darold A. Treffert Acknowledgments Chapter 1The Hidden Abilities in All of Us Chapter 2Brilliant Impact Chapter 3A Flexible Mind Chapter 4What’s Your Number? Chapter 5Smart Cookies Chapter 6Draw Like a Child Chapter 7Not a Worry in the World Chapter 8Super-Perceivers Chapter 9Brain Tech 197Chapter 10The Transcendent Everyman Appendix Notes Index FOREWORDSome say that we use only 10 percent of our brain capacity. After my fifty-plus years of working with persons with savant syndrome, both congenital and acquired, I think that may be an overestimate. This book, with its meticulous and vast account of past and current neuroscience research, delivered in a very reader-friendly fashion, reinforces my impressions.I met my first savants in 1962 when I started a Children’s Unit at a hospital here in Wisconsin. One boy had memorized the bus system of the entire city of Milwaukee. Another young patient, mute and severely disabled, could put together a two-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle, picture side down, just from the geometric shape of the puzzle pieces. A third boy was a walking almanac of what happened on any day in history (this was BG—Before Google). And a fourth little lad made free throws with unerring accuracy, putting his feet in exactly the same place, holding the ball in exactly the same way, and tossing the ball in exactly the same trajectory, like a pitching machine.It occurred to me then that this rare condition, in which extraordinary ability stands in stark juxtaposition to severe disability, was speaking volumes about hidden brain potential and brain plasticity. This impression was reinforced immensely when I later began to encounter acquired savants—ordinary persons who suddenly showed extraordinary musical, artistic, or mathematical abilities that had apparently lain dormant until a head injury, stroke, or other damage to the central nervous system forced them to the surface.I documented many cases of both congenital and acquired savants in my 2010 book, Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant. I wrote that both conditions hint at the “little Rain Man” within us all, but noted that the real challenge is how to tap into that dormant potential without enduring some brain injury or central nervous system catastrophe, and how to accomplish that as nonintrusively as possible.This book addresses that challenge directly. It provides further convincing evidence of dormant brain potential within us all, and provides some clues as to how to tap into it in readily available, nonintrusive ways.One way of tapping the potential of our “superbrain,” if we choose to, will be through intentional and deliberate effort to apply our existing artistic, mathematical, musical, or other skills to learning new abilities such as calendar calculating, lucid dreaming, or adding to our everyday memory capacity using specific mental imagery techniques. The book suggests that even synesthesia or perfect pitch can be learned to some degree, thus adding those elements to the neurotypical brain’s repertoire of abilities. Yet that does not detract from, nor explain, the innate, “factory-installed” instant access to the special skills of savants, both congenital and acquired. In these cases, such skills are not simply “learned.” In the savant, prodigy, or genius, “nature” contributes as liberally to extraordinary skills as does “nurture,” whether for ten thousand hours or more.Another key to unlocking our brain potential may come from emerging technical approaches. The “tyranny of the left hemisphere” can be limited, temporarily at least, by using certain nonintrusive external electrodes, which allow right-brain, nondominant abilities to emerge—the same abilities associated with savant syndrome. While the idea of a total division between the left brain and right brain is an oversimplification, the fact is the brain hemispheres do specialize in certain functions, so temporarily inhibiting the left hemisphere “brain boss” allows suppressed right hemisphere abilities and capacities to surface. Some naturally occurring nutritional supplements hold promise in enhancing brain function, as do some existing medications and experimental compounds. Evaluating risks and benefits with all of these is a constant balancing act, but formal efforts with these products are underway, as discussed in the book.An even less dramatic approach, but still an intentional one, is what I refer to as “rummaging around in the right hemisphere.” We are generally a left-brain society, and logical, sequential thinking and language—specialties of the left hemisphere—serve us well. But that comes at the expense of the more creative, artistic, spontaneous, and subconscious capacities of the right hemisphere. As this book demonstrates, one can, because of brain plasticity, cause a “shift to the right” by deliberately visiting those capacities more frequently.Finally, with all we are learning about dormant brain capacity and plasticity in neurotypical persons, as well as in those with exceptional brain function, the additional beneficiaries will be persons with existing handicaps or disabilities. While for most of us the goal is to find nonintrusive methods of brain enhancement, those with serious central nervous system diseases are already turning to techniques such as deep brain stimulation to treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease or refractory depression. Like pacemakers for the heart, similar devices for persons with epilepsy might one day be used to abort seizures by applying to the brain the same principles that are used to treat serious heart arrhythmias. Already, a helmet device containing sensitive electrodes can allow some quadriplegic persons to move a computer cursor by merely thinking about it, and can even stimulate paralyzed muscles to restore motion and mobility.In short, our efforts to explore, understand, and harness this most complex organ and capacity in the human body—the brain—will not only enhance our everyday functioning but will propel us further than ever toward fully maximizing both the brain and human potential.To that end, this book provides a trailblazing menu.Darold A. Treffert, MDACKNOWLEDGMENTSFirst, we must thank our students and student colleagues, whose feedback and questions sparked the initial idea for the book.We are forever indebted to Jill Marsal, the best agent in the world, for taking us on board, believing in us, and helping us develop a set of rough ideas into a book. We cannot thank you enough.Caroline Sutton and Brittney Ross’s insightful editing and formidable suggestions have made the completion of this book possible. We cannot imagine a better team of editors. Sincere thanks also go to Catherine Knepper for the countless hours of line editing at the initial stages of the project.This book could not have been written without the research participants, scientists, and friends who agreed to share their stories: Derek Amato, Amber L. Anastasio, Ralph Dittman, Leigh Erceg, Patrick Fagerberg, Daniel Kish, Tom Jacobson, Katherine MacLean, Mark Nissen, Jason Padgett, Lidell Simpson, Peg Schwartz, Robert Waggoner, and dozens of others who preferred to remain anonymous. Thanks also to the fantastic people at the University of Miami, whose positive attitude and kindness made finishing this book so much easier than it could have been.We are forever indebted to our amazing families, significant others, close friends, and brainy cats, who have inspired and supported us throughout the writing process.CHAPTER 1The Hidden Abilities in All of UsOrdinary, Colorful, and Accidental SupermindsAs researchers at the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research, in Miami, Kristian and I routinely meet people with extraordinary mental abilities: card counters who can beat the house, self-taught mathematicians, people with face blindness who rely on sound “pings” to recognize faces, blind people who navigate the world using echolocation like bats and whales, memory champions who seem to have hard drives in their heads, and people who suddenly become musical virtuosos or accomplished painters after a blow to the head. Truly an eclectic bunch. While many of them are savants with extraordinary abilities, you’d never know it sitting with them at a café. What’s more, not a single one was born with prodigious abilities.Talk about extraordinary mental abilities might bring to mind a limited number of well-known men (and the occasional woman): Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Francis Crick, Richard Feynman, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, or perhaps an eccentric intellectual or a maladjusted loner—a weirdo, a freak, or maybe even a psychopath.People with extraordinary mental abilities are sometimes looked upon with suspicion or unease, but the truth is that many of us long to have these abilities. We long for extraordinary levels of skill and effortless proficiency—and despair over our losing tickets in the genetic lottery of super-ability and talent. The prevailing assumptions are that people are born with extraordinary mental abilities, not made; that they operate on a plane inaccessible to the rest of us; and that they’re among the blessed few with a free pass excusing them from the drudgery of practice and labor-intensive learning.Nothing could be further from the truth.After spending a great deal of time with ordinary people with extraordinary abilities, Kristian and I felt compelled to share their collective story, a story that takes issue with the cult of God-given super-abilities that cannot be taught or acquired. Not one of the people we encountered in the lab whose stories we’ll share in this book is a born “super-person.” Their pathways to brilliance are as varied as their personalities. But whether it was an injury, an innate brain disorder, an occasion of learned synesthesia, or a mentally “downloaded” algorithm that enabled them to bypass slow, conscious thinking, these gifted individuals gained cognitive access to areas of their brains that normally operate behind closed doors. They acquired the ability to manipulate information in new, ingenious ways or at lightning speed—and they have much to teach us about how we can unlock our own hidden talents and abilities.In some cases the relevant neural areas in our brains are already completing amazing tasks, but they’re doing so below the level of conscious awareness. The parietal cortex, located on the top of the head, contains brain regions involved in completing ordinary mathematical tasks like performing arithmetic and solving algebra equations, but it also houses neurons that can solve extremely complicated mathematical problems faster than a computer. For example, parietal neurons calculate the exact hand aperture and hand position required in order for us to quickly reach out and grasp a rapidly moving object or to strike a key really fast on the keyboard while engaging with intellectually challenging text on the screen. While the parietal brain regions solve incredibly complex mathematical problems on a daily basis, most of us do not have access to the calculations or the solutions to the problems. Nor can we purposely make use of these brain regions to perform other types of calculations or to solve a different set of problems. But in rare cases the brain undergoes a functional or structural reorganization that allows just this type of access—and it’s this “behind the velvet ropes” access to specialized brain regions that paves the way for the supermind.One Key to the SupermindMany folks believe that only special brains can achieve the ultimate level of extraordinary mental ability and that excellence is an inborn talent bestowed on a select few. But it turns out that all brains have hidden superhuman abilities. We just have to use the right keys to unlock them. One such key is synesthesia. Based on our research, one of our hypotheses is that synesthesia can be the brain’s way of opening up areas that we don’t normally have conscious access to.To understand how this works, we’ll need to know more about this fascinating condition. Synesthesia is a special way of perceiving the world, involving experiences of connections between seemingly unrelated sensations. For example, the number three may lead to a perception of copper green, the word “kiss” may flood the mouth with the flavor of bread soaked in tomato soup, and the key of C# minor may elicit a bright purple spiral radiating from the center of the visual field.Having these colliding senses can, in rare cases, be a debilitating condition, such as when all the rainbow’s colors brutally penetrate the visual field of a particularly sensitive color-to-sound synesthete. Most synesthetes, however, describe their unusual sensations as pleasant. Some experience the condition as an inner art exhibit or a natural wonder.One of the best-known forms of color synesthesia is grapheme-to-color synesthesia, in which numbers or letters are seen as colored. But lots of other forms of color synesthesia have been identified, including week-to-color synesthesia, sound-to-color synesthesia, taste-to-color synesthesia, and fear-to-color synesthesia.There are also lesser-known forms of synesthesia. In a 1913 article in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, neurologist Isador Coriat described a case of “colored pain,” which is still considered a rare form of synesthesia. These synesthetes perceive colors as they experience pain. Coriat’s subject was an intelligent forty-year-old woman suffering from anxiety, sleepwalking, and headaches. As far back as she could remember she’d see different colors when she felt pain. For her, pain produced clear, distinct colors, and a certain “kind of pain” consistently produced a particular color. “Each type of pain produced its individual and invariable color, for instance: Hollow pain, blue color; sore pain, red color; deep headache, vivid scarlet; superficial headache, white color; shooting neuralgic pain, white color.” The woman saw colors as masses with no recognizable shape, except when pain “involved a jagged, longitudinal, or round area, the color stimulated by this particular type of pain had a corresponding geometrical figure.”Artist Carol Steen is a contemporary synesthete who experiences colored pain. Her pain is orange. She reports on a “distinctly unpleasant” experience of synesthesia while at a dental appointment:I was at the dentist, and he was drilling. And I don’t like the sound of the drill—but the color orange that completely flooded my vision, I couldn’t shut my eyes, because they were already shut! [laughs]Except that I’m able to use it diagnostically. I had to have a root canal done once (not my favorite game) but you know, sometimes when you have a tooth pain you’re not quite sure which tooth it is? He said, “I can’t really say that you need a root canal in this tooth.” I said, “This tooth is orange; please do it.” And he hesitated. I said, “Look. If I’m wrong, this tooth will never need a root canal.” So he went ahead and he did it.He said—he poked around a little bit—“This tooth needs a root canal.” He said, “It hasn’t really become ‘ripe’ yet, but the nerve is dying.” And sure enough, when the nerve was out, and the anesthesia had worn off, there was no more orange. It’s like orange is my default color for pain.Synesthesia gets weirder. One of our research participants, Megan, experiences music by touch. The sound of the piano feels like taps on her face. Strings vibrate in her chest. Waves from brass instruments pass in front of her, sometimes buzzing around her neck. Drums come up from below. She may even feel as if she is being slapped on the face by music. This might sound painful, but it’s actually an ecstatic experience for Megan. Intensity increases with volume, but these sensations are never unpleasant, as Megan feels like she is within the music, a part of it.My own experiences with synesthesia actually provided the impetus for my current research. Since I was a child I have had vivid visual images in response to fearful or uncomfortable thoughts. The fear-induced synesthetic images look something like a landscape that’s projected out into the world about twenty to thirty centimeters from my eyes. The landscape is bluish green, with spiky mountain peaks—picture a large piece of highly wrinkled paper or cloth and you’ve got the gist. This “landscape” moves as if it’s being shaken by some unseen hand; sometimes I see a rotating movement within it. When the fear is strongest the images are extremely vivid, sometimes completely blocking my visual field and obscuring my surroundings. When the fear or discomfort is less intense, the images are present but transparent, and I can still see my surroundings. Not all of my uncomfortable or fearful thoughts are associated with this sort of phenomenology, but the occurrence of it is a sure sign of uncomfortable or scary thoughts.When I was a child I used to be deadly scared of the moving, wrinkled landscape projected out in front of my head. I had heard somewhere that you see yourself just before you die—a real out-of-body experience. I later found out that the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud suffered from the same anxiety all of his life. I lived in such constant fear of seeing myself that this caused the extreme images to be regularly projected out into my room. I would close my eyes, but it continued behind my eyelids, although a little less intense. I would hide under my quilt for hours until I finally fell asleep. I didn’t know what the strange images were. My parents didn’t either. They thought that perhaps I was having nightmares, or worse; maybe I was hallucinating.It was not until high school that I learned my condition had a name: synesthesia. I was doing a science project on colors and came across the phenomenon in the literature I was researching. From then on I was fascinated by it, although it would take many years before I began studying the condition in my own lab. And then one day, the synesthesia that had caused so much fear in my earlier years saved my life.In March 2008 I was in Australia finishing up my postdoc in eminent consciousness at the philosopher David Chalmers’s Centre for Consciousness. On this particular day I was hiking in a rain forest. Snakes were sunbathing everywhere—poisonous eastern brown snakes. These snakes are considered the second-most venomous land snakes in the world, with a neurotoxic venom that can cause death to humans within half an hour if the person is left untreated. Even the baby snakes have enough venom to kill an adult human. When hiking in the rain forest there is usually no way of quickly receiving antivenom, so avoiding snakebites is paramount. Usually, avoiding the snakes is easy. The hungry and alert snakes slither away when they hear footsteps. But the satisfied and lazy sunbathing snakes don’t feel like moving at all. Occasionally you will need to make them move by throwing little sticks at them, because the trail is so narrow that you can’t step around them.As I was hiking down a narrow trail, suddenly I couldn’t see anything but a field of bluish-green rotation projected out in front of me. It completely blocked my visual field and I was forced to stop. This had never happened before. I hadn’t experienced any fear, yet my visual field was one big landscape of synesthetic fear.After a few seconds the colors faded enough for me to see through them. And there it was: a curled-up brown snake less than two feet from where I stood. It was huge in comparison to most of the brown snakes in the rain forest, and it was hissing at me. I felt the panic in my chest.“Don’t move,” I told myself.The snake kept hissing.I wanted to run. But I knew that running was the wrong thing to do. If you run, you may scare the snake and it may attack, and if you get bitten and you are running, the venom will kill you faster.“Don’t move,” I kept telling myself.Somehow I managed to stand completely still until the snake slithered off into the trees. Maybe it was only ten minutes, but it felt like hours.That was when I started loving my fear synesthesia. It had saved my life in a moment when my conscious awareness hadn’t even perceived a threat.The information that normally remains behind closed doors isn’t limited to potentially dangerous stimuli. As we will see later in this book, synesthesia can provide individuals with seemingly amazing skills in almost every domain. There are synesthetic sculptors, mathematicians, pianists, and even self-proclaimed psychics. Years later I’d discover that this is but one example of how the brain is constantly processing much more information than what we are conscious of. In the case of synesthesia, some individuals have found a way to tap into this information stream.Around the same time as my encounter with the snake, I discovered that my daughter, Rebecca, is a grapheme-to-color synesthete. Letters and numbers have their own unique colors, even when printed in black. One is blue, two is yellow, three is green, four is purple, five is red, and so on. It shouldn’t have surprised me that she has synesthesia, as synesthesia runs in families.I found out that she had the condition when we were taking our regular route to her day care. The short journey included driving under three consecutive highway bridges. My daughter was only three at the time, so each day I would count out loud when we were driving under them. “One bridge . . . two bridges . . . three bridges.” She would count aloud as well. She has been obsessed with numbers for as long as I remember, so this was always a very exciting part of our short drive for her. One day after passing the third bridge I just spontaneously asked, “What’s the color of three?”“Green,” my daughter replied.The response came so naturally to her that I immediately doubted that this was an arbitrary answer. When we got home that night I asked her about the numbers from zero to ten, and all the letters in the English alphabet, as well as the three additional letters of the Danish alphabet (my daughter is bilingual). She had unique colors associated with all the graphemes, except zero. For example, J is magenta. Zero became colored a few years later and has changed its color since then (it started out as golden and is now blue). She is eleven now and the other numbers and letters have retained their original colors or slight variations on them.Many years later it occurred to me that perhaps my parents were synesthetes, too. One would think I’d have asked them earlier, but I never did. I finally asked during a visit to Denmark. My mom was cooking. I casually walked up to her and asked, “What color is seven?”She looked at me as if I was from a different planet.“Are you all right?” she asked, concerned.I nodded. “Yeah, I’m great.”“Let me know if I need to make you some chicken soup,” she said.When I heard my dad enter from the yard, I hurried into the washroom to meet him. “What color is seven?” I asked.He too looked at me as if I was from another planet, then shook his head slightly and said, “White, of course. Why?”“What about G?”“Brown. Why? Why are you asking this?”At a mature age my dad was very surprised when I told him that not everyone sees numbers and letters as colored. He has never read any of my work on synesthesia. I write in English, and his native language is Danish. And I don’t think we had ever talked about my condition since I was a young child when no one knew what was going on. In our family most dinner conversations are about politics, psychopaths, foreign countries, vacations, art, theater, fine wine, and grandchildren. I told my dad that I had a different form of the condition, and though he vaguely recalled me talking about it as a child, my form of it is so different from his that it never did ring a bell.After my experiences in Australia I was even more fascinated with synesthesia. Not only was it aesthetically gratifying, it had quite literally saved my life, and it was abundantly apparent that it powered my daughter’s prodigious memory. I wondered what it could teach us about the human brain, and what role synesthesia might play in accessing hidden cognitive abilities in all of us. So after finishing my postdoc in Australia I returned to the States and started a lab devoted to the study of synesthesia and special talent.Synesthesia as a Tool for Enhanced Mental AbilitiesSynesthesia appears to enable people to enhance their memory capacities and to perform mental feats related to their synesthetic abilities.Our synesthete Megan remembers birthdays, meetings, activities, and so on, by consulting the virtual calendar that circles her body. The rest of us pull out our paper or online calendars to jot down plans for the future. But as a time-space synesthete, Megan can use her mental calendar as a tool for memory. She looks straight ahead and can tell you precisely what days work for her.I recently discovered that I remember information on websites because sites that I frequent or that impress me get located in virtual space circling my body. My current university’s e-mail login page is just after ten if you envisage my personal space as a clock. I go to the virtual space to retrieve material I have read, and this can also help me relocate the site in “real” virtual space if I need to double-check.But this isn’t an ability unique to synesthetes. Anyone can learn to associate qualities such as colors, personalities, or locations with information that they need to access quickly. For instance, you might “color code” phone numbers, lists of data on which you’re being tested, and verb declensions and key phrases in languages you’re learning. We’ll look closer in chapter 4 at how to go about acquiring synesthesia-like associations and developing a superhuman memory.In addition to aiding memory, research shows that synesthesia can enhance other abilities as well. On top of the “symphonic massage” that Megan feels when she hears music, her peculiar tactile sense has enabled her to feel other people’s pain—pain that we normally would only see in the form of a facial expression. She regularly relies on this ability in her work as a nurse.Some synesthetes apparently have superhuman insights into the thoughts and feelings of their fellow humans, others are equipped with incredible memory skills or admirable artistic acumen, and yet others are able to influence stubborn minds by instantiating their atypical sensory connections in work environments or commercial settings. Research also shows that synesthesia turns up especially often among artists and geniuses, and that the condition plays a crucial role in facilitating their extraordinary acumen.So what’s the connection between synesthesia and supermind ability? Our lab’s hypothesis is that synesthesia can be a basic building block of potential supermind ability. Let’s look at how this may be the case.All brains already perform extremely complex calculations when we complete the simplest of tasks. A two-year-old can proficiently maneuver a computer mouse with one hand while being fully focused on what is presented on the screen. The underlying calculations the brain needs to perform to make this happen are so complex that few of us would know how to consciously perform them, even with access to a supercomputer. To move a computer mouse, the brain must quickly calculate and recalculate distances that the mouse needs to move for the cursor to move different distances. We are never consciously aware of these complex calculations and hence cannot use them to solve mathematical problems at will. In some people, however, synesthetic images often function as a translational device between unconscious calculations and the solutions to difficult problems. For example, British savant and synesthete Daniel Tammet sees the product of large digits as the shape fitting in between the images of the digits. This allows him to multiply faster than a calculator.Synesthesia, however, is not reserved for the lucky few who were born with it. It is an extreme variant of multisensory integration—the way the brain combines the information coming in through the five senses to create a single conscious experience. Sensory information first enters through channels specialized for a particular sensory modality, such as hearing, taste, or vision. Even though each channel is more or less independent, the brain attempts to match up the timing of each signal so that the experience makes sense, making it impossible for you to experience any particular sense in isolation. Sometimes the information streams coming from two channels don’t quite match up. One superb example of multisensory integration is the McGurk effect, a phenomenon in which auditory experience can be manipulated by a change in what the listener sees. When integrating visual and auditory signals, the brain tries to make sense of conflicting information, sometimes allowing one of the signals to win out. For example, if you watch a video clip of a man repeatedly saying “fa, fa, fa” dubbed over with an audio recording of “bah, bah, bah,” the visual experience will win out, causing you to actually hear “fa, fa, fa.”Because synesthesia is a quirk of multisensory processing, it is possible for all of us to obtain the intellectual and creative advantages of the condition by reinforcing naturally occurring integrative processes. The reasoning behind this is simple. Synesthesia is the result of new, unusual brain connections, such as the connection between sounds and colors, or sounds and emotions. And it turns out that it is quite possible to learn to become synesthetic to some extent, by training the brain to associate, say, colors with memories or emotions, or colors with sounds and graphemes. While synesthetes typically are born with these unusual linkages, nonsynesthetes can actually rewire their brains through deliberate practice, building the same sorts of unusual bridges.It is well known that memorizing arbitrary facts, unlike memorizing synesthetic connections or other meaningful associations, can be extremely difficult. Part of the reason for this is that memories are stored in fragments in different regions of the brain. When you retrieve a memory, the hippocampus—the brain’s main memory center—assists in putting together the fragments, sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly. In the case of emotional memories, the neural networks connecting the memory fragments are tied to the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, and to other neural regions involved in processing emotions. Memories tied to emotions tend to be easily retrievable and very intense. This is why it is so difficult to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder or to get over the breakup of a relationship tied to a lot of memories. The amygdala intensifies those memories and makes them easier to recall (which is sometimes unwanted, as in the case of a breakup). This tie was an enormous advantage for our ancestors. Not remembering the name of one of the individuals in their tribe wouldn’t kill them, but forgetting that tigers are dangerous would. So, the amygdala developed in such a way as to allow for the association of fear with a particularly dangerous animal, thus allowing for quick warnings of impending danger.Although color associations may be slightly less intense than emotional associations in some individuals, colors play a role somewhat similar to that of emotions. Colors have served our ancestors in numerous ways, and they still serve us today. For example, we react quite intensely to slight color differences in people’s faces. A slight variation in the rosiness of a woman’s cheeks can make a significant difference as to whether a male study participant will rate her as “somewhat attractive” or “very attractive.” The evolutionary reason for this is that rosy cheeks signal not only health but also fertility. Because of these types of phenomena, the brain is very tuned-in to associations that involve color. So, by connecting color with the thing that you need to remember, you can greatly facilitate memory retrieval.As we will see in chapter 9, the same goes for things like perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to tell, upon hearing a musical note, whether it is, say, an E or a D. Perhaps that sounds easy. But as a matter of fact, even trained musicians usually cannot do this. Rather than being an innate talent, perfect pitch is at least partially a result of upbringing. A significantly greater number of people who speak tone languages—those in which variations in pitch can change the meanings of words (e.g., Mandarin)—have perfect pitch, compared to Americans (who speak English, which is not a tone language).Although people don’t usually acquire perfect pitch by practicing music, it is possible to acquire it by learning how to associate each note on a piano with a color and an emotion. This basically amounts to learning to be synesthetic (at least in a minimal sense). The science behind this is straightforward. While musical notes are very difficult to remember, colors and emotions are easy to retrieve. So, once new brain connections between sounds and colors, or between sounds and emotions, have been generated, musical notes will be significantly easier to identify and name.Similar possibilities also apply to other creative activities, such as painting, writing a poem, or building an abstract sculpture. Most poetry relies on a literary technique that is also called “synesthesia.” This term should not be confused with synesthesia as a form of perception, but they are superficially related. If a poem states that someone is “hearing blue,” for example, that is synesthesia (in the artistic sense). In poetry this may be interpreted as symbolic. By practicing certain forms of associations between, for example, color and sound, people can dramatically increase their abilities to write poetry and paint in interesting and novel ways. No one will become a Yeats or an Eliot without many hours of rigorous practice, but training your brain to become synesthetic can jump-start creative talents that lie dormant.Why is this so? Because the new associations between, say, color and sound generate new brain connections. The new brain connections seem to allow people to be more creative. This makes good sense, as creativity normally is associated with the ability to combine old information in new ways. And there is indeed a higher incidence of synesthesia among people with creative talent. In fact, synesthesia provides some people with enhanced memory and other cognitive capacities. As researcher Julia Simner explained to the BBC, people with synesthesia, on average, remember double the number of facts from any given period in their life than regular people, who would recall just 39 facts. (One of the synesthetes in the test group recalled 123.) An average person may remember that they went on a vacation to the Virgin Islands when they were nine, whereas the synesthete would remember the name of the hotel, the German kid she played with, and the nice store owners who gave her and her little brother some hard candy. Synesthesia thus tends to provide a general enhancement in memory. It also can facilitate reading speed and mathematical abilities.A more extreme case of exceptional memory linked to synesthesia is that of Solomon Shereshevsky. He was working for a Moscow newspaper when his editor noticed that he never took notes of addresses, quotes or stories. His synesthesia strongly influenced his memory. It seemed to have no limit in capacity or chronological reach. He could recall long, meaningless lists of nonsense syllables, such as “ma, sa, na, va, na, sa, na . . .” and nonsense mathematical equations after eight years. He was able to remember matrices of fifty digits after only a few minutes of looking at them and could recall them sixteen years later.Accidental SuperhumansSynesthesia is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to supermind ability. In our research Kristian and I have also studied people who became incredible cognitive jewels by accident. Given the typical stories of people with amazing minds—those of phenomenal artists like Michelangelo and Beethoven, tech moguls like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and brilliant mathematicians like Einstein and Gödel—it might come as a surprise that people can turn from completely ordinary individuals into superhumans in a few minutes. But as a matter of fact they can.Such is the case of Orlando Serrell. He was a perfectly ordinary kid, leading a perfectly ordinary existence for the first ten years of his life. Then in January 1979 a ball smashed into the left side of his head while he was playing baseball with friends. He fell, but eventually got back up and kept playing.. For weeks he suffered from a headache, but he didn’t see a doctor and didn’t mention his injury to his parents. Eventually the headache ceased. Shortly thereafter Orlando realized that he had the ability to perform calendar calculations about days following his accident. For example, if you ask him about January 15, 2004, he will immediately say “Thursday.” He cannot do it for any days prior to the incident. Ask him about any particular day since his 1979 accident and he will likely be able to tell you what the weather was, where he was, and what he was doing.This condition, which the accident sparked in Orlando, is known as savant syndrome, a phenomenon in which people show extraordinary abilities in a narrow range of capabilities, typically in memory, music, art, calendar calculation, mathematics, or spatial skills.Researchers at Columbia University conducted an fMRI—a type of scan that shows activity in the brain—of Orlando to test which areas were involved in his newfound skills. They gave him written and verbal dates and asked him to think the answer to the questions. They found that several regions on the left and right side of the brain were involved in the calendar calculations. Apparently the memory centers weren’t involved at all, indicating that he actually performed calculations to provide his answers. When Orlando did engage in a memory task by recalling the weather or events that happened on a given day since the accident, researchers found that the areas normally associated with memory were active in Orlando’s brain, but that the activity was significantly increased compared to ordinary participants.There are many other cases of people who become savants by accident. At the tender age of three Alonzo Clemons suffered a severe brain injury after falling on his head. That accident changed his life. It left him mentally and physically disabled with an IQ in the 40–50 range. He couldn’t feed or dress himself, and now in his fifties, he still can’t. He can’t read, write, or drive a car. But the tragic accident did something else to Alonzo’s brain. After the incident Alonzo started showing a strong interest in Play-Doh and clay. He was always trying to sculpt things. Even when he did not have access to modeling clay, he was so determined to sculpt that he would use materials he found outside—twigs, grass, leaves.His mother quickly realized that her child was no ordinary sculptor. After seeing only a fleeting image of an animal on a television screen, Alonzo could sculpt a realistic and anatomically accurate three-dimensional replica of it, correct in each and every detail right down to the muscle fibers.For more than twenty years Alonzo performed his art in silence and without anyone other than his close family knowing about it. Then in the late 1980s Barry Levinson’s film Rain Man was released. In the movie, narcissistic yuppie Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) learns that he has an autistic savant brother, Raymond (played by Dustin Hoffman), who has extreme memory abilities. Once the movie brought international media attention to savant syndrome, Alonzo’s artistic talent was featured in several national media outlets. His sculptures sell like hotcakes, some for tens of thousands of dollars.