Cognitive Daily

i-fe653597d48d0ccb60d83fb7568d7f59-rainman.jpgRemember 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”.


  1. #1 Alexander Whiteside
    June 9, 2006

    I remember this coming up in New Scientist’s April 2003 (2004?) issue. It was widely assumed to be an April Fools joke.

    March 2001, in fact! My memory is seriously useless.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    June 9, 2006

    Do you mean this?

    I think that’s a different phenomenon (one which seems much less likely). The research I cite above was published in Perception, a peer-reviewed journal, so I think it’s legit.

  3. #3 Alexander Whiteside
    June 12, 2006

    That’s the one. It’s interesting to see how it’s turned out given some of the skepticism at the time.

  4. #4 Sonya
    May 8, 2008

    I just came upon this entry. Could you provide the actual reference please? And have there been any further studies so far, corroborating or disproving this?

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    May 8, 2008


    Here’s the reference: Snyder, A., Bahramali, H., Hawker, T. & Mitchell, D.J. (2006). Savant-like numerosity skills revealed in normal people by magnetic pulses. Perception, 35, 837-845.

    I haven’t seen any follow-up studies, but a Google Scholar search came up with this.

    Pollak T, Mulvenna C, Lythgoe M Bogousslavsky J, Hennerici MG (eds): Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists – Part 2. Front Neurol Neurosci. Basel, Karger, 2007, vol 22, pp 75-88 (DOI: 10.1159/000102873)

    Also, make sure you follow the link in my post to the original write up of the article in BPS Research Digest.

  6. #6 Jesus A.
    April 24, 2009

    So that’s what that guy was wearing on his head at VEGAS!!!

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