Our featured interview Professor Allan Snyder, himself a living genius and brilliant learned scholar, is currently the Director of The Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney Australia.
Born into an artistic family and inspired by Einstein, he desired to express his creativity within the biological sciences as well as theoretical physics. Though he was educated at the world’s most elite universities, it was his contemplations of nature that would lead him to breakthrough discoveries. His study and observations of photoreceptors in the human retina, and later, his study of the compound eyes of flies, gave him insights into how light travels down optical fiber. These insights would eventually become the theoretical foundations for fiber optic telecommunications technology.
This successful work in blending visual neurobiology with optical physics and communications gave rise to offers from many prestigious institutions in the US, but he preferred the freedom offered him to pursue his own research passions in Australia. There, he began exploring ideas about how light manipulates light, theorizing how such manipulation might become the basis for massive computational power in future technological applications, eventually replacing silicon.
Always pushing the envelope, his interests in art and the ways in which light interacts with matter led him towards contemplating the human mind. He observed that the brain is the ultimate non-linear device. Dr. Snyder accurately perceived that we do not look passively onto the world; that, indeed, our brain connections are continuously changing and the signals our brain receives actually change its connectivity.
Most recently, it is Dr. Snyder’s groundbreaking study of artistic and numeric autistic savants that has led to his hypothesis that everyone innately possesses these extraordinary skills. His research demonstrates that using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to artificially depress the areas of the brain responsible for high level functioning allows for the expression of these savant-like abilities in normal human beings.
We asked Professor Allan Snyder to share his perspectives on genius and innate human ability:
SC: Professor Snyder, you have been studying savant autism, and based on your findings, you report that all of us have the innate capacity for savant like skills, but that the mechanism is mostly unconscious within us.
ALLAN: Yes, that’s right. I am intrigued by one thing.
Art, music and mathematics are considered by many people to be the epitome of creativity, of genius even, and they require years of dedicated training and absolute focus and extreme intelligence.
Yet, a three year old, someone who is brain damaged and is severely autistic, who cannot recognize her mother from the nurse, her motor coordination isn’t good and she can’t speak, is drawing like Leonardo Da Vinci. What does that say about great art? I can give you a similar story with music, a similar story with certain aspects of mathematics and they all add up to the fact that the part of their brain that is turned off seems mysteriously to enhance certain skills.
SC: So, in normal people, you have turned off the part of the brain that is doing higher-level analysis to mimic the autistic state… a part of the brain, which is accessing only a limited amount of information.
ALLAN: Yeah, I mean this is very interesting. Of course, it is fascinating that normally, and in the case of vision let’s say, we don’t see what is out there. We are consciously aware of the label of things, the whole, the concept, the gestalt as we say but we are not conscious of the parts that comprise the whole. It is very interesting. Our executive brain does exactly what any executive wants to know, the final decision. Our brain deliberately inhibits the information that comes from the lower level sensory raw information.
SC: Our brains are filtering that information.
ALLAN: I agree totally with the word filter. That’s right, normally we have filters on our perceptions. We have a filtered version of the world. We don’t see what’s out there. We actually see what our brain has accumulated from past experiences. If you like, you know, a word that is not too often used now is that we are innately prejudiced. We are innately filtered. We do not see things. It explains so much of our behavior. Now, of course, it would be foolish not to mention that this tends to be a pretty good strategy, the strategy to make us fast at the familiar.
SC: For survival.
ALLAN: For survival, yes, but this function is terrible in original situations, in novel situations.
Now this comes to the important part about genius. I mean autistic people are hardly the people we want to mimic. They don’t have genius. They have mimicry. They do amazing things, but they are not genius. Genius is kind of looking at things in a way that is different from everyone else: To take things from one area and mix them with things in another area and come up with a new synthesis and this is something that they don’t do. But, hey, there is something very interesting. What would it be like if we didn’t have the filters of perception? And that is exactly the autistic state.
So for genius, how can we join the dots up in a new way if we continually superimpose upon them our prior connection? That is the bottom line, which is my thesis. Creativity is linking the dots up in a new way without imposing what you already know upon their connections. That’s my definition of creativity. And that is what these autistic savants are not able to do. They are only able to look at these dots just as they are and draw them just as they are but they are not able to do anything with them.
SC: So, geniuses, then, have a control somehow or someway over that filtering process, have the ability to bypass that filtering process to be able to link up those dots in new and original and progressive ways.
ALLAN: That’s it, yeah, that’s it. In other words, the creative of mind, the genius mind is one that, if you like, can switch almost between, say, idealized autism on one hand and extreme conceptualization on the other.
I artificially have been trying to make a genius machine, a creativity machine, right? Such a machine would give us a momentary view of the world the way it is. That is, I turn off a part of the brain, which simulates the savant world, and momentarily you see the world with fewer filters.
“This lets you see the dots a little bit more the way they are and, therefore, [you have] the chance ultimately to be more creative. You talk better. You have music better. You have mathematics better. Hopefully, eventually we can perfect ourselves to be less prejudiced even, removing the filters of perception”
SC: If we remove those filters and we have an experience of that filterless state where we have access to a greater, more fundamental part of us, let’s say, do you perceive that it is easier for us to re-access that state through our own will or through our own intention after we experience that more filterless reality?
ALLAN: Of course that would be the wish that we could, by momentarily experiencing that world, we might be able to perfect natural ways to achieve that ourselves.
SC: In your laboratory experiments with normal people in which you depress their higher level functioning in the brain, have you depressed that ability repeatedly, under repeated controlled conditions, to observe whether your people were able to hold that receptive, filterless state longer?
ALLAN: No, I haven’t done that. I have observed that they are able to hold that state after an initial exposure. Multiple exposures are probably better.
Now I mean genius, I am intoxicated by the notion of genius. And there are many other factors. But this idea about being filtered and being able to remove the filters of perception. There are other ways to do it other than trans-cranial magnetic stimulation.
SC: Let’s talk about that.
ALLAN: Yes, well, if you take a normal mind, it has these mental templates, which I call mindsets, which embrace situations like riding a bike or swimming. You don’t think about the parts of that. You just do it. We have mental models in our brain that simplify our going through familiar situations. We don’t even think about them. We just execute them.
Now if you take an autistic person, they don’t have those mindsets mainly because they never form mindsets. When we form these mindsets we no longer see the parts that compose them.
SC: Without the ability to develop mindsets, autistics are not able to connect or link up the dots. We are talking about genius-level capacity but without true, full functionality, correct?
ALLAN: Yes, they have only one part of it. See, we simplify the world internally. They simplify the world externally, which is my way of looking at autism. They see the world as a continuous expression of surprises. Which it is for them, and therefore they are, in a sense, open for originality but unable, as you just said, to connect the dots. So they see that the dots are not joined up but they can’t join them up because they don’t have any mindsets. Autistics try to control the outside world whereas we have models for dealing with it.
Back to genius, how would we [develop] it without transcranial magnetic stimulation or without being able to have someone hit you on the head?
SC: Training techniques for lower level information access without brain damage.
ALLAN: I think there is a way to do it. We are blinded by our mindsets. We are blinded by our expertise. These are just filters, more and deeper filters, aren’t they? The way around it is to take on many, many more filters, to take on many, many more mindsets. Like Picasso, [he had] many transformational styles where each one associated with a major disruption in his life, a major change. Doing things that are outside of our own little niche, in other words, is very good because we then see the world with more mindsets. The more mindsets we have the more the little pictures we have of the world.
SC: So your philosophy is basically changing neurological mindsets … taking on more.
ALLAN: Yes, it works like this. Just as we wouldn’t see the dots as disconnected, you won’t see the stars totally disconnected. We’ll still see constellations out there but we would have many choices of the constellations. Just like with the constellations, we would have more different views of the dots. That’s another way of looking at it.
“Every expert in the world incrementally advances knowledge, but that is completely different from the person who stands outside the box and changes how we think”
Taking on more filters doesn’t seem to be based on how well you do in school or university or anything. It has to do with many other things, which I call being panoramic. And, it’s like having this thing I call the champion mindset, about wanting to differentiate your work from the rest of the pack, being willing to confront conventional wisdom, not being afraid of that, but not doing things deliberately for that purpose. It is recognizing that if you have something new, it is hard to sell. I mean it is, and that is the delightful part about it.
Now, what is my definition of genius? It’s changing how people think about the world. I mean that’s a real contribution. Copernicus changed how we think about ourselves as the center of the universe. Genius is more than simply advancing knowledge, it is changing how people think, how they look at the world.
You see, advancing knowledge is very much a lower-down subset. Radically changing how we think about something, is quite different than incrementally advancing a field. Copernicus changed the fact that we are no longer the center of the universe: That’s powerful.
It is to me very important to separate out the incremental advancement of knowledge from genius. Every expert in the world incrementally advances knowledge, but that is completely different from the person who stands outside the box and changes how we think.
If we don’t have that component of changing the way we think when calling someone a genius, I really feel you are missing the essential essence.