Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/December 1896/Idiots Savants

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THE term idiots savants is applied to all such idiots, imbeciles, or feeble-minded as exhibit special aptitudes of one kind or another, always out of proportion to their intellectual development in other directions, and often remarkable as compared with similar accomplishments or faculties in normal individuals.

There are many cases of the kind recorded in literature, and it Is not at all uncommon to hear of idiots in our newspapers and museums who are exhibited as musical prodigies, "calculating boys," and the like. Beyond the fact of the existence of such curiosities, and the record of their deeds, there has been little or nothing written in explanation of these phenomena. The psychology of the condition is exceedingly obscure, and even were the physiological processes which underlie special aptitudes understood, there would still remain the mystery of the manifestation of particular talents or faculties in minds otherwise blank or defective. It is the aim of this brief paper rather to present the nature of the facts which we have to consider, and to indicate lines of study that might be pursued with advantage, than to add any material knowledge to the psychology or etiology of the condition.

In the first place, then, let us inquire concerning the kinds of aptitudes which may be developed to an unusual degree in mentally deficient individuals. The aptitudes may be summarized as follows:

Arithmetical faculty, musical faculty, special memories, imitative faculty, modeling faculty, delineative faculty, faculty for painting, aptitude for games (draughts, etc.), aptitude for buffoonery.

This is not a classification, but merely an arrangement for examination of the instances cited under each heading. Some of these captions really include others. Thus, special memories would cover usually the musical faculty. The imitative faculty should include possibly the repetition of musical airs and compositions, drawings and paintings from objects, as well as imitations of gestures and actions. Arithmetical faculty is a qualification which perhaps encompasses too much, since this aptitude in the mentally defective is generally restricted to calculation only. The term "musical faculty" also is to be understood in a limited sense, since the musical prodigies of this description rarely exhibit more than a phenomenal memory for musical compositions. Under the heading of aptitude for buffoonery, I have thought proper to place such defectives as evince a talent for wit and humor of a low order, as is instanced in some of the historical court fools and buffoons.

After this short preface regarding the nature of the cases it is proposed to include in a description of idiots savants, examples of each kind will be cited under the appropriate caption.

Arithmetical Faculty.—Precocity and an extraordinary power of the faculty of mental arithmetic have been frequently noted in idiots.

Dr. Howe described an idiot with little use of language, yet with astonishing power of reckoning. If one's age were told him, he would give the number of minutes one had lived in a very short time.

Guggenbuehl observed an imbecile at Salzburg who would solve the most difficult problems in mental arithmetic with incredible rapidity. At one time the attempt was made to induce him to become a teacher of arithmetic, but as he could not understand his solutions of problems it was found impossible for him to explain them to others.

Atkinson noted an idiot woman with arithmetical faculty in excess whose only delight was to be occupied with questions of number.

Ireland mentions a boy at Earlswood with the arithmetical faculty. He could add and multiply three figures by three figures with lightning rapidity.

In a valuable study of Arithmetical Prodigies in the American Journal of Psychology (April, 1891), E. W. Scripture has collected thirteen examples of this aptitude. Six of these (Ampére, Gauss, Archbishop Whately, George Bidder, Safford, and Wallis) were men of eminence or genius who exhibited extraordinary precocity or aptitude in mathematics. The remaining seven cases are properly classified under the heading of this paper.

Tom Fuller, born in 1710, known as the Virginia calculator, was a native African, never knew how to read or write, but had phenomenal powers in arithmetic. Asked how many seconds in a year and a half, he responded in two minutes, 47,304,000. Asked how many seconds a man had lived who was 70 years 17 days 12 hours old, he answered in a minute and a half, 2,210,500,800.

Jedediah Buxton, an Englishman, born in 1702, was excessively stupid as a child, never learned to write his own name, had not even common intelligence in the ordinary matters of life, and whose mind never reached a development beyond that of a boy of ten years, was a marvelous mathematician.

Zerah Colburn, born in Vermont in 1804, was exhibited from the age of six as a mathematical prodigy. He was a backward child and never able to exercise even ordinary intelligence in other directions or to learn much of anything. He had supernumerary digits on both hands and feet, and was a degenerate.

Vito Mangiamele, son of a Sicilian shepherd, born in 1827, was exhibited as a calculating boy, but was otherwise dull and ignorant.

Dase, a German, born in 1824, extremely stupid and dull in other directions, never able to master a word of any language but his own, was a mathematical genius. As an instance of his power, he multiplied correctly, in fifty-four seconds, 79,532,853 by 93,758,479.

Grandmange, a Frenchman, born without legs or arms in 1836, was another example of a mathematical prodigy.

Mondeux, a Frenchman, son of a woodcutter, born in 1826, possessed an extraordinary arithmetical faculty, although he could neither read, nor write, nor cipher. He could not remember a name or address. He solved this problem in a few seconds: How many quarts of water in a fountain from which a group of people draw as follows: The first person takes one hundred quarts and one thirteenth of the remainder; the second, two hundred quarts and one thirteenth of the remainder; the third, three hundred quarts and one thirteenth of the remainder; and so on until the fountain was emptied?

Dr. Heim cites the instance of a woman of very limited intelligence and deficient in language, who could give the number of minutes a person had lived as soon as the age was told her.

There are other examples in literature of mathematical aptitude in individuals otherwise defective, but these will suffice to illustrate the character of the cases under consideration. When we remember the deficiency of idiots in general as regards even the simplest kinds of calculations—such as counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—the contrast of powers in the exceptional instances mentioned becomes even more astonishing.

We may deduce from a study of such cases several facts which are noteworthy. First, the mathematical aptitude in idiocy is never of a high order. The faculty consists entirely of excessive powers in mental arithmetic—in simple calculation, which is a better term to apply to it. Secondly, it is instinctive and congenital. It is observed only in the congenital variety of idiots, imbeciles, and degenerates; and on careful examination we shall find anatomical and physiological as well as psychological stigmata of degeneration in such cases. Thirdly, much of the faculty is due to the increased power of visualization—to great development of certain parts of the sight centers. Most of us, in mental arithmetic, compute by means of visual images. We, who have been educated to cipher, see the figures before us in computation. Individuals who have been made to employ objects—such as the fingers, grain, pebbles, or the abacus—visualize these objects in their mental arithmetic. Indeed, the derivation of the word calculation recalls the ancient use of pebbles in reckoning. A psychological analysis of the mental operations required in calculation is a difficult problem, the solution of which is very desirable. Scripture, in his study of arithmetical prodigies, concluded that the faculty of mental arithmetic, as exhibited in his illustrative cases, depended upon—1. Accurate memory for a sufficient length of time. 2. Velocity of memory. 3. Firmness with which long series of arithmetical associations cling together. 4. Mathematical inclination. 5. Visualization.

It will be noted that the fourth, the mathematical aptitude, is the obscure factor, which the author did not attempt to explain, and that the other four points are merely the means of expression of the mathematical inclination.

Musical Faculty.—The susceptibility of all classes of idiots to rhythmical sounds or noises has been frequently commented upon by various authors. Music is the most sensual and the least intellectual of the arts. A musical aptitude in certain idiots is therefore not so astonishing in some respects as the possession of the arithmetical faculty.

One of the most noted examples of idiots savants of this class was Blind Tom, a pure negro, born in Georgia, in 1849. Born blind, he showed intelligence only in regard to sound. He learned to repeat words early, though the words had no meaning to him. He could repeat whole conversations, but entirely without comprehension. His own spontaneous language was never much more than inarticulate sounds. He could imitate any sound about him. He could recite with ease anything heard in Greek, Latin, French, or German. It was a species of echolalia. He could play on the piano from memory any piece of music, no matter how intricate, after hearing it but once. He would imitate, note for note, the improvisations of another. He is said to have retained as many as five thousand musical compositions in his memory.

Seguin describes (Idiocy, page 405) a blind male idiot with a remarkable talent for piano-playing, with this same power of repeating anything after a single hearing.

Helat (La Folie lucide) tells of a congenitally blind female idiot with great musical talent. Her voice was correct, and when once she had heard a piece she knew the words and the music. This phenomenon excited so much attention that Géraldy, Liszt, and Meyerbeer visited her.

Dr. Paris (Lancet, February 11, 1888) records the case of an idiot, aged fifteen, unable to pronounce a single word, incapable of receiving the most elementary education, able to hum correctly and gracefully a large number of airs, and who did so every day, always the same and always in the same order, without variation. While the family was fond of singing, the idiot had never heard any one sing except the father and mother.

A young woman whom I examined not long ago is an idiot of low grade, without ability to converse or care for herself, yet presenting a marvelous memory for music, reproducing, both by singing and on the piano, numerous musical compositions. Some intricate instrumental pieces she renders accurately with her voice in a high falsetto key. Several of her sisters are musicians.

Dagonet (Traité des maladies mentales) cites the case of an idiot girl who began to speak at the age of nine years, but was possessed of a very small vocabulary, and was ignorant of notes. She had a remarkable aptitude for music, and could repeat upon the piano compositions heard for the first time. She was the daughter of distinguished musicians.

Morel (Études cliniques) records the history of an idiot boy who, becoming possessed of a drum, made such rapid progress in its use in three or four attempts at playing that he was made drummer in the orchestra at the asylum where he lived. His father and grandfather had been drummers in the army, and a normal brother had always had the desire to follow the same pursuit.

In this class of idiots savants also it is to be noted that the idiocy is congenital. We observe, too, that the musical faculty, although well developed in contrast to the general intellectual paucity, is not of a high order. It consists of a remarkable auditory memory, together with the power of expression, by means of the vocal musculature or fingers, of the musical memories stored up in the brain. There is no spontaneous musical expression, no power of invention. An interesting feature is the evident hereditary character of the talent. In some of the instances cited the imitation of sounds heard is not restricted to music, but includes sounds of every kind.

Special Memories.—Winslow records the case of a man who remembered the day of burial of every person who had died in the parish for thirty-five years, and who could repeat with perfect accuracy the names and ages of the deceased and of the mourners at the funeral. He was a profound idiot, and could not reply intelligibly to a single question beyond this, nor be trusted even to feed himself.

Morel cites the instance of an idiot who was unable to count twenty, yet could name all the saints of the calendar and the days of their respective fétes.

In some of the books on these defectives is mentioned an idiot with a wonderful memory for English history. When supplied with the slightest cue, he recounted in measured tones whole passages of it.

Falret noted an imbecile who could give immediately the days of birth and death and the principal events in the life of any celebrated personage mentioned to him.

Such instances of elaboration of special memories where all other faculties are in abeyance might be multiplied. The cases above mentioned were, no doubt all of them, examples of extraordinary development of the auditory tracts and centers. There are other cases in which the visual memories are disproportionately developed, as in idiots with unusual memory for places or faces.[1] These patients, too, are congenital defectives.

Imitative Faculty.—Under this caption should probably be included some of those cited under other headings, for the repetition of sounds heard, or the delineation of things seen, or the copying of actions all partake of the nature of imitation. Imitation is an instinct in defectives as it is in normal persons. Sometimes it manifests itself in simple forms, such as echolalia or echokinesis; occasionally it is exhibited in a manner so remarkable as to constitute a true talent. An instance imparted to me by a friend is in point. It is that of a young man, congenitally imbecile, but with an astonishing power of imitation of sounds. The multiform notes and noises of birds and voices of every domestic animal, even the peculiar sounds of sawing and chopping wood, the creaking of wagons, and the like, are so perfectly reproduced by him that he is in demand as a partaker in social entertainments.

The Modeling, Delineative, and Painting Faculties.—Examples of idiots savants with talents bespeaking disproportionate development of the visual centers, together with the power of reproduction by modeling, drawing, or painting, are occasionally to be met with.

Ireland, in his work on idiocy, describes two cases—one with an aptitude for drawing and wood-carving, and another with a talent for the designing and construction of buildings.

There was a noted idiot at the Earlswood Asylum who made a perfect model of a ship—a vessel ready for the sea—with every block and rope in order, said to be a marvelous specimen of naval architecture. It took him four years to construct it. He was able to speak but a few words, and these imperfectly, and could not follow the meaning of sentences nor write; but he learned to copy drawings, which were so excellent and curious as to be preserved in the palace. He had seen neither sea nor river nor ship, and had only a representation of a vessel in the middle of his handkerchief as a guide.

Sollier describes an imbecile girl of six years, unable to read or write or understand anything, yet gifted with the power to draw anything she saw. She copied perfectly all the letters of the alphabet without knowing their names or signification. She reproduced thus objects and also scenes of which she was witness, though she comprehended nothing about them.

Gottfried Mind was an imbecile who died in 1814. He was so skillful in the drawing and painting of cats that he achieved distinction and became known as the cat's Raphael. Many examples of his work are to be seen in European art galleries.

Aptitude for Games.—Seguin cites the case of an idiot with extraordinary ability to play draughts, and there are one or two other instances of a similar kind on record. It is probable that such talent depends upon an unusual power of visualization, by which the necessary positions and moves are foreseen.

Aptitude for Buffoonery.—It is not uncommon to meet among idiots, imbeciles, and feeble-minded cases with an aptitude for drollery, and for witty or humorous remarks and actions. Not infrequently it amounts to a true talent, and thus justifies including them among the idiots savants. At the present day the sayings and pranks of this class of defectives are seldom heard outside of institutions for their care, but there was a time in history when the quips and antics of the fools took the place of our comic papers of to-day. The dramas of Shakespeare have kept alive our knowledge of the fools of his day, for there are more than thirty of them who flaunt their weaknesses, folly, wisdom, and license through his plays. He depicts both natural and artificial fools, for these were the two classes of buffoons employed to amuse mediæval society. The origin of the custom, in England at least, seems to have been in the legal disposition of the persons and estates of idiots. They were given into the custody of the nobility and gentry, who profited sometimes by their estates, and, clothing them in the familiar livery, made them the butt of ridicule and practical jokes for the amusement of themselves and their guests and retainers. It is instructive and interesting to read in this connection Doran's History of Court Fools and Arnim's Nest of Ninnies. The latter book in particular throws light upon the nature of the custom of keeping domestic fools, and incidentally illuminates the civilization of the time. Here is Arnim's description of a court fool in the palace of the King of Scotland. He was a fat fool, a trifle over three feet high, two yards in circumference, at the age of forty years:

His head was small, his hayre long on the same;
One ear was bigger than the other farre;
His forehead full, his eyes shined like a flame,
His nose flat, and his beard small, yet grew square;
His lips but little, and his wit was lesse.
But wide of mouth, few teeth, I must confesse.

His middle thick, as I have said before;
Indifferent thighs and knees, but very short;
His legs be square, a foot long and no more;
Whose very presence made the king much sport.
And a pearl spoone he still wore in his cap,
To eat his meate he loved, and got by hap.

A pretty little foot, but a big hand,
On which he ever wore rings rich and good.
Backward well made as any in that land,
Though thick; and he did come of gentle blood.
But of his wisdom ye shall quickly heare.
How this fat fool was made on everywhere.

This court fool could say bright things on occasion, but his main use to the ladies and lords of the palace was to serve as victim to practical jokes, cruel, coarse, and vulgar enough to be appreciated perhaps in the Bowery.

Any quick-witted imbecile or feeble-minded individual in those days had no difficulty in securing a good livelihood, and sometimes even prosperity and fame. Under such conditions it became common for normal individuals to adopt the calling of the jester or buffoon, and these were known as artificial fools.

Conclusions.—The aptitudes of various kinds described above as not infrequently encountered in idiots are all of rather low order. They are never found in any but the congenitally defective, who usually present the stigmata of degeneration. They consist chiefly of great powers of memory, visual or auditory, and of facility in imitation. There is no spontaneous invention. The idiots savants are mere copyists in music, modeling, designing, or painting; yet at the same time their talents stand out in strong contrast to their general feeble-mindedness. As a rule, the aptitudes are precociously developed, and are frequently lost before reaching adult life. The physical basis of such talents must be a precocious perfection of the cerebral organization in certain areas, together with a true hyperplasia of tissue in such regions and a tendency to early degeneration. There must be an increased number of cellular elements and sensori-motor combinations and associations in definite parts of the brain. Cases have been described in cerebral pathology of misplaced aggregations of such tissues in the brain under the name of heterotopia of gray matter, and it is possible that some such unequal distribution of the structures underlying psychological processes will be found to account for the presence of the extraordinary talents of idiots savants. It is questionable whether Heinecken, the "child of Lübeck," should be included among any of the cases described here. He died too soon (at the age of four years) for the fact of mental weakness of any kind to be established; but his precocity made him the wonder of his time (1731–’25). He knew the chief incidents of the Pentateuch at the age of one year, had mastered all of sacred history at two years, and was intimately acquainted with modern and profane history and geography, and spoke French and Latin, besides his native tongue, at the age of three. Surely such precocity as this must have been due to extraordinary aggregations of gray matter in parts of the brain of a truly abnormal character.


  1. Thus Drobisch cites the case of an idiot boy whose visualization was so great that he could repeat word for word a page, even if in Latin, after single reading.