Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant by Darold A. Treffert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Islands of Genius is an enlightening journey into the breadth and depth of Savant Syndrome through scientific evidence and case studies from the authors wealth of experience as a psychiatrist specialising in the epidemiology of Savant syndrome in autism.
Treffert presents an intriguing argument that the evidenced existence of unlearnt knowledge in music, art, mathematical ability, literature and so on, in people with Savant Syndrome or a prodigious ability, is indicative of genetic memory that is present in us all.
The author goes on to ask if people with a learning disability, CNS injury,dementia or other condition that inhibits left-brain function and stimulates right-brain function (a common factor in Savant sydrome cases), can access a reservoir of information stored in their DNA, is it possible for neurotypical people to access the same through conscious right-brain stimulus?
Genetic memory and epigenetics are complicated fields of study and Treffert introduces us to the lived examples of this in an accessible way. Meeting people in the book, like Kim Peek, Alonzo Clemons and the larger than life Temple Grandin, is an enriching experience. There are plenty of references to direct you to films about the people you are introduced to in the case studies, making this book a very interactive tool and bringing the pages to life.
The content is greater than the written style. Many parts of the book are repetitive. It could be a lot more concise and would probably be more powerful if it were edited down.
The case histories are integral to introduce you to some very important people, but they are all approached with the same success story formula which becomes predictable and, unfortunately, less impactful. They tend to reduce the people they describe to their savant ability and the positive effect of that skill in their life, always with the support of a loving family. It gives the impression that the author is extracting the information they need to convey a strongly-held belief or argument, rather than letting the information speak for itself. Because of this, the book is a little too prescribed. After the first five cases, you hear the author’s message loud and clear but you do not get to know the individuals themselves in any other way, which keeps you at a distance from the person behind the condition.
However, the subject matter of this book is highly valuable and the concepts that it posits are not only brilliant in themselves theoretically, but they can, do and should be ever more applied to uncovering vast, untapped oceans of diverse intelligences and abilities and potential for human development.
Islands of Genius is a living thing and when you absorb the ideas within it, you feel inspired and compelled to share its capacity to make you think and its humbling attention to the people who grace its pages and for that I am incredibly grateful to its author. Read it.
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