Mysteries of the Mind
By George Wolfe
When I was in high school, I met a student named Rick who had a peculiar savant ability. You could rapidly read to him a long list of two digit numbers to add, and he would give you the sum immediately after you gave him the last number. He would not have to pause to think and calculate. The answer came to him instantly.
I recall an afternoon when a few of my friends decided to test Rick’s ability. One of us had a baseball card that listed the player’s stats. On the back of the card was a column of two digit numbers and their sum. We decided to read off the numbers to him, then check Rick’s answer with the sum on the card. After reading the numbers, Rick gave his answer. One of my friends responded, “Sorry, that’s incorrect,” seeing that Rick’s answer differed from the sum on the card.
“No,” said Rick with confidence. “You check that. That card’s wrong.” Sure enough Rick’s answer held up. The baseball card had it wrong.
Rick could only do this with two digit numbers. If you threw in a couple of three digit numbers, he was not so accurate. His was a modest and very narrow savant ability, but it was nevertheless an unexplainable gift.
There are of course many, more astonishing examples of savants, like the musical genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and prowess of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the young Indian mathematical wizard and college dropout who had caught the attention of theoretical mathematicians in Cambridge, England.
It was Mozart who wrote his first symphony at age 8. When he was 13, the young protégé heard a performance of the nine-part choral work Miserere by Antonio Allegri which, by papal decree, could only be performed by the papal choir in Rome during Holy Week. The choir jealously guarded the only existing copy of this composition, and performances elsewhere were forbidden. After hearing the work but one time, Mozart wrote down the entire composition. His father Leopold, who promoted his son’s genius at every opportunity, then showed the reproduced score to an astonished choirmaster.
Another remarkable savant is Daniel Tammet who speaks 11 languages, learned the Icelandic language in a week, and who recited the value of pi from memory, carrying it out to 22,514 decimal places. And there also Alfonzo Clemons, who suffered a disabling brain injury as a toddler, but who can, after briefly seeing an image of an animal, sculpt the animal in three dimensions with impeccable clarity and detail.
Such abilities go beyond mere talent, so much so that in Mozart’s time, it was believed a genius somehow had a direct channel open to the Divine. Indeed Ramanujan attributed his mathematical insights to a “deva” which is roughly the Hindu equivalent to an angel.
In the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a child protégé when, at the age of 12, he was found at the temple in Jerusalem, sitting with the teachers who were “amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 46, 47).
We continue to be perplexed by those who possess precocious and unexplainable gifts. Whatever explanations we ascribe to such abilities, it is clear that the mind harbors many incomprehensible mysteries. We can only wonder and humbly marvel at the depth of human consciousness and what the mind it is capable of.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus at Ball State University and former Director and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He also chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox and Contemplative Spirituality.