Visual Acuity

I’m a big fan of YouTube. Any medium that facilitates the sharing of my favorite commercials (see Burger King Chicken Fries and Citreon C4 Transformer) and allows me to watch Michel Gondry solve a Rubik’s Cube with his feet is OK by me. That said, it’s rare to stumble on a YouTube offering that meets the stringent requirements of “brain blogging.” So you can imagine my delight at finding this: An excerpt of autistic savant Stephen Wiltshire drawing an aerial view of Rome from memory.

I’ve spent a good chunk of time reading about autistics with peculiar gifts, but I’ve never seen a savant in action. (No. Rain Man doesn’t count.) And let me tell you, it’s enough to make you wonder if “normal” intelligence is all it’s cracked up to be. According to the voiceover, after just 45 minutes of surveying Rome from a helicopter, Wiltshire was able to faithfully recreate virtually everything he saw. His completed panorama stretched across 5 and half yards of paper. Even more impressive, Steven’s masterpiece required no preliminary sketching, or “roughing out of space.” “It [was as] if the panorama already [existed] in his head, with all the proportions, all the roads, all the details.”

Those of you who take the time to watch the video will notice that several of the commenters are skeptical of its veracity. And, in this age of visual effects, it is hard to believe that it hasn’t been tinkered with. But trust me, this is the real deal, folks. Stephen Wiltshire’s abilities are well documented. For proof, visit his website or check out Neurologist Oliver Sacks’ profile in the 1995 An Anthropolgist on Mars.

Wiltshire is not the first autistic to have been found to have extraordinary artistic ability. As Sacks’ writes in An Anthropolgist on Mars:

In 1977, the psychologist Lorna Selfe published Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child. Nadia suddenly started drawing at the age of 3 and a half, rendering horses and a variety of other subjects, in a way that psychologists considered “not possible.” Her drawings, they felt, were qualitatively different from those of other children: She had a sense of space, an ability to depict appearances and shadows . . . Whereas normal children go through a developmental sequence from random scribbling to schematic and geometric figures . . . Nadia seemed to bypass these and move at once into highly recognizable, detailed representational drawings.

(From An Anthropolgist on Mars, 196)

In spite of being mentally retarded, by the age of nine Nadia was making drawings like the one presented in Figure A.


Compare that to Figure B, a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci:


And this, a picture by your typical, run-of-the-mill nine-year-old:


(Images courtesy of A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness)

Nadia, the experts ultimately determined, drew instinctively, “without the usual need to ‘understand’ or ‘interpret’ what she was seeing.”

In his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, U.C. San Diego Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran postulates that Nadia’s ability was the result of what he calls “a hyperfunctioning art module.” Put simply, Ramachandran suggests that the profound damage Nadia’s autism caused to her brain barred her from engaging in normal activities. But one area of her brain had been spared: the right parietal. As Ramachandran writes:

The right parietal is the part of the brain concerned with our sense of artistic proportion. We know this because when it’s damaged in an adult, artistic sense is lost. Stroke patients with right parietal damage produce drawings that are often excessively detailed but lack the vital essence of the picture they are trying to depict. They have lost their sense of artistic proportion . . . [Nadia had] a hyperfunctioning art module in her brain, which [was] responsible for her beautiful renderings of horses . . . What most of us “normals” have to do through years of training . . . she [did] effortlessly.

(From A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, 53)

Stephen Wiltshire’s brain appears to be wired in much the same way. He, like Nadia, is severely mentally handicapped. (His verbal IQ has been measured at 52.) And he, like her, had great difficulty grasping language, acquiring the rudiments of speech at the ripe age of nine. His brain appears to have diverted all the energy that would have been allocated to engaging with the outer world towards drawing instead.

We’ve all heard stories about people’s sense of touch becoming supercharged after they lose their sight. Recent research reveals that this reallocation of resources can actually be seen in the brain. (“Blinded By Science” ) Now, I don’t know if anyone has ever put Steven Wiltshire in a functional MRI, but my hunch is that if you did you’d find that his right parietal dwarfs that of a normal person. It’s as if, lacking any better options, Wiltshire’s brain has opted to become entirely specialized, giving him an unparalleled facility with drawing.

This is not as large of a leap as it would be for a normally functioning individual. As Temple Grandin explains so eloquently in her book Animals in Translation, autistics are naturally inclined to process information visually.

What we typically think of as one brain is actually three: the first – and lowest in the skull – is the reptilian brain, which controls basic functions such as breathing. The next up is the paleomammalian brain, responsible for our emotional lives. And the third is the neomammalian brain, evolution’s latest masterpiece, which is in charge of reason and logic. In autistics, the neomammalian brain is underdeveloped, thus their internal resources get diverted. The end result? Autistics rely far less on logic than “normals,” and have a more a highly developed sense of the visual. Grandin does a better job of explaining how this feels than anyone else I’ve stumbled on:

I’m a visual thinker . . . when I say [that] I don’t mean just that I’m good at making architectural drawings and designs . . . I actually think in pictures. That’s true no matter what subject I’m thinking about. For instance, if you say the word “macroeconomics” to me I get a picture of those macramé flowerpot holders people used to hang from their ceilings . . . If I’m thinking about a [cattle] structure I’m working on, all of my judgment and decisions about it happen in pictures. I see images of my design going together smoothly, images of problems and sticking points, or images of the whole thing collapsing if there’s a major design flaw . . . If you think about a judge and jury, all my deliberations are in pictures, and only my final verdict is in words.

(From Animals in Translation, 16-17)

It strikes me that Steven Wiltshire’s talent is just a revved up version of what Grandin is describing.

The thing I find most intriguing about Wiltshire’s ability is not its novelty, but the idea that this kind of visual acuity is latent in all of us.


  1. #1 Katherine Sharpe
    February 5, 2007

    I remember reading about Stevel Wiltshire in Oliver Sack’s book. His drawings, besides being accurate, were very beautiful.

    I met a savant once, and I’ll never forget it. A very normal interaction in one way, but uncanny in others. I was at a taqueria just off Valencia Street in San Francisco. There was a busboy at the restaurant who appeared developmentally disabled. I’d seen him there before. This time, he approached me and my friend. He asked each of us what day our birthday was. We told him, and then he told us what day of the week our birthday would be on this year, and what day it was on last year. He walked away unceremoniously. We checked his conclusions later, of course, and he was dead right.

    It’s wild what the brain can do.

  2. #2 Gillian
    February 7, 2007

    I went to the Outsiders Art Fair last month and there was a great exhibit of art made exclusively by people with mental disabilities. I had no idea that was the theme of the collection until after I left, when I was looking into buying one of the pieces, made by an autistic person. Thanks for this info. Especially this:

    “Stephen Wiltshire’s brain appears to be wired in much the same way. He, like Nadia, is severely mentally handicapped. (His verbal IQ has been measured at 52.) And he, like her, had great difficulty grasping language, acquiring the rudiments of speech at the ripe age of nine. His brain appears to have diverted all the energy that would have been allocated to engaging with the outer world towards drawing instead.”

    Their abilities make perfect sense to me now.

  3. #3 nab
    February 8, 2007

    yo tonta, nice to see you again. found the blog. now send me your real email address. paz, nab

  4. #4 Kate
    February 16, 2007

    i just found this…thanks for a truly fantastic entry. i’d blogged about an npr piece on the savant that wrote “born on a blue day”, which i thought was equally fascinating – one of the few times you begin to glimpse what that type of genius entails. from fellow neuroscientist to neuroscientist, it’s nice to revel in what sets people like stephen apart.
    hope you don’t mind, but i referenced your commentary and the video on an entry today.
    thanks again 🙂

  5. #5 Leni
    February 21, 2007

    That was a great entry. (I found this just by hopping around Seed, by the way…)

    I feel compelled to comment because I found that book Nadia in a Goodwill store probably 15 years ago, and it, as of this moment, on my shelf not 3 feet away. It also is pretty much the oldest book in my rag-tag collection. I just love it. I fell in love with her horses.

    One of the things I found most intriguing about Nadia’s art was the way she drew eyes. They are a little frightening. Bulging, harshly drawn, weird emotionless things with tiny specks for pupils. (For those of you familiiar with the Lord of the Rings film… Remember when Bilbo sees the ring again at the end and he has that moment where his eyes get all CGI evil and buggy and he lunges at Frodo to grab the ring? They look just like that…)

    What’s striking is that her rendering of everything else was so accurate that I immediately assume the same must be true for eyes. Why wouldn’t they be? So…that was how she saw eyes? It’s heartbreaking. Although, if I remember right, part of the problem was that she suffered an inability to read emotion from faces, and so was incapable of rendering facial expressions accurately.

New comments have been disabled.