Remember the movie Rain Man, where Dustin Hoffman’s character, stricken with autism, was amazingly talented with numbers, able to easily count cards and win a fortune at blackjack?
Researchers have found a way to temporarily duplicate that facility in ordinary individuals. By placing a strong magnet over a particular region of the brain, they in effect simulated one of the symptoms of autism: the ability to put objects into groups. This facilitated brute-force counting, temporarily allowing participants to display amazing counting ability:
The researchers think that by temporally inhibiting activity in the left anterior temporal cortex, the TMS allowed the brain’s number estimator to act on raw sensory data, without it having already been automatically grouped together into patterns or shapes. In other words, they believe it caused the healthy brain to function more like an autistic brain. “We argue that it removes our unconscious tendency to group discrete elements into meaningful patterns, like grouping stars into constellations, which would normally interfere with accurate estimation”, the researchers said. “By inhibiting networks involved in concepts, we may facilitate conscious access to literal details, leading to savant-like skills”.