Remembering all the baseball scores of the last ten years by heart? Impressive! Providing the zip codes for all cities in the US? Useful! Reading a book page in 10 seconds with each eye and retaining 98% of its content? Impossible!
Kim Peek (†58 years) managed to perform all three due to a loss of brain structure and was known to be the most famous savant.
Kim Peek was born with macrocephaly (an enlarged head) in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1951. A brain scan revealed his corpus callosum (the brain structure that connects our two hemispheres) to be absent and his cerebellum (necessary for motor activities) to be damaged together leading to developmental impairments. According to his father, Fran Peek (†88 years ), Kim was only 4 years old when he was able to walk, whereas at the age of 16-20 months he already managed to memorize every book that was read to him. What makes his case even more bizarre is that only at the age of 3 he asked his parents about the definition of “confidential”. His parents kiddingly told him to check it in the dictionary thinking he was not able to find the word as no one showed him the alphabet. As you can probably guess already, Kim had no problem locating the word and even reading the definition without prior education of how to read the letters. Ever since he began to read, Kim was able to remember 98% of a book’s content with an average reading time of 10 seconds for two pages (each page he read with one eye simultaneously).
Until his death, he was estimated to recall the content of at least 12,000 books, according to The Times. You can imagine Kim’s breadth of knowledge to be astonishing and it truly was. Whether he was asked about the birthdays of famous musicians, events of World War I and II , sports trivia or the highways, Kim knew the answer from all the books he was devouring. On the other hand, tasks like buttoning his shirt or tying his shoes posed great difficulties for the megasavant.
Nevertheless, Kim Peek was a public figure as he became the inspiration for the movie “Rain Man” released in 1988 in which Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant with similar abilities to Kim. From this moment on, Kim and Fran developed a new found confidence which they used to address larger audiences to talk about Kim’s case. This led him to interact more socially as they were answering a number of questions to a great amount of people not only in the US, but the whole world. At the same time, it promoted awareness for handicapped individuals.
What set Kim apart from other savants is that Kim’s knowledge was not only very specific, but he was capable of making connections between different disciplines. This is unusual for a savant, as they mostly possess one very specific expertise without being able to apply this knowledge to a different field. Dr. Darold A. Treffert, an expert in savantism, therefore made the claim in an interview that ”Kim was the Mount Everest of memory”.
What I found most remarkable about this case is that apparently the loss of a very important brain structure, the corpus callosum, caused Kim to achieve his extraordinary abilities. We would expect the loss of such an important area to have detrimental effects when it comes to acquiring knowledge. What exactly caused Kim to retain the knowledge of his books is a complete mystery to experts in this field and finding definite markers leading to such abilities will prove challenging in the future. For example, I would expect a very large hippocampus in people showing very high retention of factual information, however this was not the case for Kim.
If you think you can provide explanations for Kim’s condition, feel free to write in the comments and I would be happy to read your ideas. Also make sure to check out the articles and videos below if you feel like learning more about Kim Peek.
I will present you a case of another savant soon, but before I will write about a woman with a curious identity disorder.
See you next time.