Transcript for Darold Treffert Uncut

 

Jim Fleming: One of the most remarkable young men that you've had contact with over the years is a man named Leslie Lemke. Can you tell me about him?

Darrold Treffert: Yeah, Leslie is Wisconsin treasure, and, in fact, I met many musical savants but he is the most spectacular musical savant I've ever met, not just because he's from Wisconsin but because of his ability to play music, his ability to sing, his ability to remember, and now that I've followed him long enough, his ability to create music. So there was sort of a myth for a long time that savants were simply repetitive machines and couldn't create.

Fleming: Part of the fascination of his story as I’ve heard it, is that he had no lessons, and his mother said he wasn't even speaking at the time when he first began to play and sing.

Treffert: That's correct, in fact, he doesn't speak a whole lot now. He's very echolalic. He will repeat what he's heard, but in terms of initiating conversation, no. What happened is that Leslie was born prematurely. He developed a prematurity retinopathy and glaucoma. He had to have his eyes surgically removed, which accounts for his blindness early. He was a very sick little lad, and so they called up May Lemke, who was a nurse governess in the area and said, "Can we bring him, essentially for a hospice kind of arrangement," and she said, "You can bring him but he's not going to die." So she just took care of him with a phenomenal amount of love and effort.

Fleming: She's a very determined lady, wasn't she?

Treffert: Very determined, about four feet tall, but the energizer bunny without any question. She occasionally would put his hands over hers as she played the piano in a very simple kind of way. Then when he was about 14 years of age, one night they watched a movie. Leslie listens because he's blind but it was Sincerely Yours, which is Liberace's theme song.

Fleming: The first Piano Concerto, the Tchaikovsky.

Treffert: That's correct, and so they went to bed and about two in the morning May woke up and heard some music and she said, "Did you leave the television on, Joe?," her husband, and so she went and there was Leslie playing Tchaikovsky's first Piano Concerto from beginning to end having heard it one time, playing it flawlessly. Of course she was startled and said, "This is a miracle."

Fleming: What an extraordinary moment.

Treffert: It is. It's interesting though that one of the first savants every described was called blind Tom, way back about the time of the Civil War, and his story is eerily the same as Leslie's as he suddenly began to play. Leslie and May decide to share the story with other people, so they went to the walk Waukesha County Fair and Leslie played. That was his first performance, and then after that he became very well known.

Fleming: Tell me again what he does. He can hear anything once and play it? So, in the beginning, you think, "OK, this is just an extraordinary feat of memory."

Treffert: Correct.

Fleming: Except of course it translates into mechanical skill as well, which is no simple matter.

Treffert: Right, and when you see him play, as you say, translated into mechanical ability, it's startling. That in itself was remarkable so that he could here a piece one time and play it back. Anybody could come up and sing or play whatever and Leslie would play it back, and everybody marvels. There are few musicians who can do that on a single hearing of that kind of length, but what happened is I followed Leslie. He certainly did that, and at every concert there would be the challenge part and people would be amazed. I have a clip of him, in fact, it was a clip of a public television program here in Wisconsin of him where a little girl came up and played Mississippi Hotdog, and Leslie played it back faithfully, every tone, even the mistake that she made. But then, toward the end of that repetition, you could see he was getting restless and then he launches into what could be called variations on Mississippi Hotdog and you get a concerto of three or four minutes long that changes pitch and changes key, so he was improvising.

Fleming: All of a sudden we're into an entirely different kind of skill. This is not echo reproduction, echolalia.

Treffert: No.

Fleming: This is creation.

Treffert: Well it's improvisation, which is a form of creation.

Fleming: But that also means he understands the basis of the music. He understands the roots of it.

Treffert: He does.

Fleming: He know the skills. He knows the notes. He knows the rules.

Treffert: He knows the rules of music, and professional musicians who have met him say, "I have spent my lifetime trying to learn what he just instinctively and innately knows."

Fleming: Yeah.

Treffert: But then, as I followed him along a little bit further, he began to go beyond improvisation to actually creating some songs of his own. So if you ask him to play a song, What a Friend we have in Jesus or You are My Sunshine, those are the typical ones. He'll play that back and everybody loves it, but sometimes they will try to stump Leslie and ask him to play something that he's never heard, and Leslie will play it. Finally Mary will say, "Leslie, are you making it up?" "Yeah, I'm making it up." In fact, we had him at a concert in Fond Du Lac where there was a challenge piece. Somebody said, "Can you play the song called Popcorn?" "Yeah, I know Popcorn." "Can you play it?" He made a song called Popcorn and Raisins because he always has raisins with his popcorn. The words, the lyrics, and the music. He did the same thing for a much longer Irish ballad that doesn't exist.

Fleming: I was going to say, these are both things that he made up.

Treffert: Correct.

Fleming: But they sounded as though they were something somebody else had done.

Treffert: Right. Beyond that, Leslie has a measured IQ of 58. At a concert in Texas we said to Leslie, "Instead of playing this after you hear this person, would you please play it with this person?" a song he had never heard before. So she stars playing. He waits about three seconds, and then he hears what she's playing. He's processing and outputting it at the same time. That's parallel processing. That is not an IQ of 58.

Fleming: Yeah. It makes you wonder about the measurement units, doesn't it?

Treffert: Yeah, IQ measures what it measures, but it doesn't measure very much in my opinion.

Fleming: Right.

Treffert: It certainly doesn't measure musical intelligence.

Fleming: One of his gifts to you has been a long acquaintance, a long period of study. You've seen him develop over decades, haven't you?

Treffert: Yes, I have, and that's been a real gift because I think sometimes people take a look at a savant, sort of a snapshot in time, and what you see may be dazzling...

Fleming: That moment when he played the first piano concerto of Tchaikovsky without ever having heard it except once is pretty amazing. You'd be happy to stop there, but that's just the beginning.

Treffert: Right, so the ability to see him over time, and now I've had the opportunity to see other savants over a period of time as well.

Fleming: Before we leave though, there's a fascinating story that I've read in some of your material and that I think is on YouTube as well. His mother, this amazing woman May, who made sure that he had a chance in life, herself suffered from dementia in her older years and was, I gather towards the end, not unresponsive but had very few responses except with him. Is that right?

Treffert: Yeah, correct. I was visiting at their home and May was the energizer bunny. She was up and running around and dancing and just a marvelous person to watch, but I looked over and May was just sitting in the corner kind of staring at her hands and that's not the May that I remember.

Fleming: Yeah.

Treffert: And so I said, "May, come on over here. Sit next to Leslie. Leslie, play something for your mom." He began to play How Great Thou Art, and she sat there just briefly but then pretty soon came to life and was praising God and singing along with him. It brought her to life. I've got miles, and miles, and miles of footage of savants, but that's the favorite two and a half minutes of anything that I have.

Fleming: I can see the smile on your face and on hers. That's what's amazing about it.

Treffert: Right. The look on her face and the connection with him and with the world again was just a marvelous moment.

Fleming: How unusual is Leslie Lemke. You've done a lot of study of what you call "prodigious savants."

Treffert: Yes.

Fleming: These are people who, as I understand it, have neurological disorders. They have one variety or another disability, we would call it.

Treffert: Yes.

Fleming: Maybe our mistake to label it that way, but then they have these extraordinary talents as well. Is it unusual?

Treffert: About one out of ten autistic persons has some savant abilities. It may be memorizing license plates or those kinds of things, or memorizing birth dates and that kind of thing, and that's what I call a splinter skill. One out of ten autistic persons and about one out of 1,400 persons with other kinds of disabilities. So it's really quite rare in other disabilities and reasonably common in autism. Then there's the second level of savants that I call "talented savants." These are people whose skill is more honed. It's more conspicuous and it's usually a single element, either math, music, or art ordinarily. Then there's a third level that I call the "prodigious savant." These are people whose skills are so spectacular. If they were not disabled we would call them a genius, and that is a very rare condition. My estimate is that there are fewer than a 100 known prodigious savants living worldwide at the present time. So Leslie is in that very high threshold group.

Fleming: What is it that they have in common that brings them to this?

Treffert: What happens in congenital savants is that there's brain damage, generally in the left hemisphere, and often in the left anterior temporal part of the left hemisphere. There is then a recruitment of intact cortex elsewhere, generally on the right side. There is rewiring to that area that's still intact and a release of dormant potential, including the rules of music, math, or art. So it's what I call the three Rs: recruitment, rewiring, and release.

Fleming: One of the things that immediately comes to mind is that several years ago there was that book drawing on the right side of the brain, and it does make you wonder if she had some of it right.

Treffert: I think she did have it right, probably all right, in the sense that if you read her book there is a lot of left-right, and I think that is one way of beginning to tap into the savant abilities.

Fleming: But that's what you think is going on, that there's a lack, an injury, something going on in the left brain that requires recruitment, as you say, to switch sides and...

Treffert: If we look at the CAT scan of Leslie, for example, there's massive left hemisphere damage from apparently when he had his eyes removed. He must have had an abscess that was in the brain and so there's a lot of left damage, and the right relatively intact. We see that in other savants, not all of them, and including all the so-called acquired savant, people who are normal, or neurotypical is the word these days, who have an injury and then suddenly become an artist or musician.

Fleming: I want to talk about one of the other savants you have vast experience with. Kim Peek, who was the role model for Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Treffert: Right.

Fleming: Similar in some ways to Leslie Lemke?

Treffert: Yes. Raymond Babbitt, in Rain Man, is an autistic savant and the movie was inspired by Kim Peek, but it's not Kim Peek's story. Kim Peek is actually not autistic. He also is brain damaged. When he was born he had a cerebral hernia outside of the skull about the size of a golf ball, which reduced by itself, but left him with significant brain damage, including left hemisphere damage. The interesting thing about Kim is that he does not have a corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the largest structure in the brain that connects the two hemispheres. So he essentially was one hemisphere apparently.

Fleming: He basically doesn't have left and right. He has center brain.

Treffert: Correct. Although when we did some other studies on him, even though he doesn't have a corpus callosum, if you do DTI imaging, you can demonstrate that there is a connection between the left and right hemispheres even though the corpus callosum itself is missing. Kim is the Mount Everest of memory. There will never be another person with the memory as vast and massive as Kim Peek's. I think I can say that with confidence having seen a lot of savants. He had memorized literally thousands of books. By that I'm talking about page with page number, and he would read these books rapidly because he would read one page with the left eye and the other page with the right eye. What would take me two or three minutes, he would do in 20 seconds. So he would just be paging through the book in that way.

Fleming: This is not simply a question of seeing and remembering, but understanding.

Treffert: Indeed. Originally when I met Kim a lot of it was just factual recall, and you could ask him anything from one of these books and he'd remember what was in them but also understood what was in them. So if you asked him about the history of England, to recite the queens and kings, or anything in the Bible, or geography, he was just this massive database. I had the opportunity to know him for a while too because as we went along this factual recall, as amazing as it was, morphed into a Google recall where he would put things together in a way that Google might if you put in a word.

Fleming: He would find relationships between things.

Treffert: Yeah, he would, and maybe times they would outsmart any of us because I didn't, for example, somebody said, "What do you know about Beethoven's 5th Symphony?" and he says, "Churchill."

Fleming: Churchill?

Treffert: Churchill. I thought about it. I said, "Kim, I don't get it." He said, "Beethoven's 5th is the morse code for the letter V, and Churchill always had his letter V."

Fleming: So he was able to access and correlate this huge store of memory. He's fascinating, but it begins to make you wonder about what's going on, in not just his brain, but ours.

Treffert: Indeed.

Fleming: That he can remember all of these things and access it.

Treffert: Right.

Fleming: Well, I think that there's a big discussion there, but I think there's one area that you've hinted at that we need to talk about. I want to ask you about acquired savants. This is the business of head injuries basically, isn't it?

Treffert: Yes.

Fleming: People who develop abilities they never knew they had, never expected to have, through what?

Treffert: Through head injury. The first report that I saw of this was in about 1980. A psychologist reported a young boy who had gotten shot in the head, but survived, but was left paralyzed on the right because of the left, and developed then some mechanical in other spatial kinds of abilities.

Fleming: This is another left brain injury?

Treffert: Correct. Then in 1990, Dr. Bruce Miller, who's a neurologist in San Francisco, in fact, he's the son of the department chair in Wisconsin where I trained in psychiatry, reported 12 cases of people with frontal temporal dementia who, as the dementia proceeded, suddenly became artists or musicians and had showed none of that ability before. When they did the spect imaging on these individuals, the legion was in the left anterior temporal area. So I got interested in that phenomena of the acquired savant and then some other cases began to come to my attention after a head injury or a stroke or some other central nervous system incident, and these were people who were neurotypical, not particularly skilled in any area, who following a head injury, would develop these unusual skills in music, math, or art. Sometimes there was a tradeoff with that. Orlando Serrell got hit in the head by a baseball at age 10 and then became a calendar, calculator, and a autobiographical memory person, but has some tradeoff in that area. Other cases are coming to my attention now where there is some kind of tradeoff. One of the most recent cases is Jason Padgett, who was mugged and had a severe concussion and as he recovered from his concussion he saw these strange images. He hadn't seen those before and somebody said, "Why don't you draw them for us?" He said, "I've never drawn anything. Well, I'll try it." He started to draw these images and they were very complex and very intricate images. A friend of his who was a mathematician said, "You know what those are, don't you?" He said, "No." He said, "Those are fractals."

Fleming: Oh, my.

Treffert: He said, "I don't know anything about fractals."

Fleming: Anybody who has seen a picture of fractals knows how extraordinarily detailed those are.

Treffert: Absolutely.

Fleming: Mechanical drawing of them, I mean, it's usually done by computers.

Treffert: That's correct, and I've got some examples of his drawings. Now Jason went back to school and learned math and so he's going around lecturing on fractals and mathematics, whereas before he never passed mathematics.

Fleming: I saw an article, I think in a Philadelphia newspaper, about an executive chef who was in a car accident. I don't imagine you know very much about it yet.

Treffert: I do.

Fleming: Oh, well what's his story?

Treffert: He was an executive chef. He was rear-ended by a semi in his SUV and was severely injured. Head injury and was in the hospital for a period of time. After he began to recover from his concussion, he also began to see these kinds of images and he had the compulsion to draw, and paint, and sculpt. Now he has his 300 paintings that he's done as sort of a compulsive kind of thing. I have been in correspondence with him as recently as yesterday, actually. He's going to make his living now as an artist he hopes.

Fleming: Wasn't there a tradeoff in his case? His abilities as a chef were diminished.

Treffert: Correct, such that he could not do a lot of the executive function that required in his position.

Fleming: This is one of the interesting things about the savants that you've discovered, it's that they don't process information in the same way that you and I do.

Treffert: Correct.

Fleming: I don't know exactly how to describe it. I imagine you do. There's a kind of analysis that we do, that we define as intelligence, that they don't do.

Treffert: Correct. Right, and what it is, for example, if George Finn, who's a calendar-calculator, is able to do these rapid calculations, but if you ask him, "How much if five times three?" He says, "I don't know." Or, "How much is two plus two?" "Ten."

Fleming: It's not that he's uninterested in that. He simply can't do it.

Treffert: Right, but he's using a different, lower level circuitry, which is unconscious. The difference between he and Rüdiger Gamm, who's a calendar-calculator who can tell you how he does it, is that he can tell you how he does it. But when you do an imaging study on them, they both are using an unconscious, lower level circuitry, so what is happening is that when there is brain damage, the brain damage in the savant, whether congenital or acquired, is not just a left hemisphere damage. There's also damage to the higher level memory circuitry, semantic kind of memory that we use most of the time. They come to rely on what's called procedural or habit memory, an unconscious sort of thing. So what you see in the savant, whether a congenital or acquired, damage to the left hemisphere, damage to the higher level circuitry, and you end up with right brain skill and unconscious ability which they are not able to describe how they do it.

Fleming: You know, what's fascinating to the casual viewer of this, I think it's fascinating to you because you've studied it for decades, but the immediate response is, what does this mean for the rest of us? Because part of this is an exploration into what the brain is doing and I gather, you've suggested we're not going to know our brains until we have a better understanding of their brains, the brains of the savants.

Treffert: Correct. What I've said all along is that until we can explain the savant, we can't explain ourselves.

Fleming: Right.

Treffert: That the savant has been viewed as kind of a, "Gee whiz. Look at that odd sort of thing out there," and "Oh, isn't that interesting. Gee whiz," and then we go back to our usual brain model, and I'm saying, "Uh uh." We can't leave it out there as an outlier. Until we can account for that, we can't account for the way we operate in total.

Fleming: One of the things, listening to you talk that's fascinating is the line. Where is the division? Yes, of course, there's a brain injury, but that doesn't explain the difference fully between the brain of the savant and the brain of the "normal," for lack of a better word, person. What do you see as the line there?

Treffert: Well, for starters, the line between "genius" and "prodigious savant" is a very thin one. Daniel Tammet, those are his words. We did a program and I asked him that question. What's the difference between you and the savant? And he said, "The difference between the savant and the genius is a very narrow line," and indeed it is, and it's interesting that instead of using the word "disabled" Daniel prefers the word "differently abled," and I think I like that term because I think they are differently abled. My feeling is that we can learn a great deal about memory and even about creativity with some of the newer tools that we have. To this point, we've been able to look at the brain in great detail with CAT scans and MRI, and we see brilliant detail of the architecture of the brain. But savant syndrome is not a difference in architecture, it's a difference in function. Now we have some tools where we can look at function. One of the problems, however, is that it's hard to play the piano on an MRI machine, so if we're really going to understand the musical savant, you can tell a mathematical savant to think about numbers or you can tell the musical savant to think you're playing the piano, but until we can really have some technology that shows the savant at work and shows the genius at work, then I think we could find out exactly what that difference is. My own feeling is that out of all of this, well several things, one is I think we have an enormous memory capacity that maybe everything that we've experienced...

Fleming: This is your Rain Man who had, you said, the largest collection of memories of anybody you think on the planet.

Treffert: Yes, right.

Fleming: Is it your suggestion that everybody has that?

Treffert: My suggestion is that we all have, with respect to memory, is that I think we all have a massive amount of memory stored, perhaps saying everything that we've experienced, that's going to far, but certainly a massive amount which is stored, to which we don't have access. Likewise, I think we have talent or ability stored to which we don't have access as the acquired savant does.

Fleming: One of the fascinating things it seems to me you're suggesting is that it's not just memory of everything we've experienced during lives, but there's something more. You've talked about what you call genetic memory, and that's entering a whole different area of discussion, isn't it?

Treffert: It is. When I was in training and people talked about Carl Yung and this collective unconscious, I said, "That's pretty soft stuff."

Fleming: So why have you changed your mind?

Treffert: From what I've seen in savants and, whether congenital or acquired, they know things they never learned. Leslie Lemke knows the rules of music but he never learned them, and other math savants know the rules of math and they never learned them. Well how is that possible? In the acquired savant who had not been an artist or a mathematician suddenly is with a fund of knowledge and ability or talent, whatever you want to call it. It seems to me that that's imbedded there, probably in all of us. The big question is how can you access that without having a stroke or getting hit on the head or something else?

Fleming: It's not just these amazing abilities that you're saying are there. Before we began recording this conversation, you were talking about genetic memories that are involved in families.

Treffert: Correct.

Fleming: That my grandson may end up gesturing like my father whom he met only when he was three months old.

Treffert: Exactly.

Fleming: It's in there some where.

Treffert: My dad's youngest brother is still living, and he's my uncle. He lives in Fond Du Lac, and we're about 10 years difference in age. Everybody assumes that we're brothers but he's actually my uncle, and, yet, as he's sort of unfolded genetically, they say, "You guys walk alike, you talk alike, you stand alike," and I haven't learned that from my uncle.

Fleming: I think this is where people begin to find themselves entering your notions because these are things that people have experienced. Most of us don't have a cousin who can play the piano extraordinarily well, but we most of us have cousins we've never met who are surprisingly like us.

Treffert: Exactly, and I think all of us experience what I call the "genetic unfolding" in our own lives. As we get older, traits that were evident in our parents or in our uncles or extended family, some of which we might like and wish we didn't have but they're there, and so while I was skeptical of Jung's collective unconscious, I'm convinced that there is this huge memory bank within all of us. Recently there was a study of a doctor who was trying to treat obesity by finding the hypothalamus and the brain stimulation of it might affect appetite, and that's true, but in the process of trying to find the hypothalamus using this electrode he would probe other areas of the brain and these memories would string forth. Things which had never been accessed in these individuals, so it's there.

Fleming: Are they memories of things they didn't experience?

Treffert: No, these are memories of things they did experience, but didn't recall. "Oh my god, that's my seventh birthday party." There were things that are there and it would flood forth. You see this a little bit in Alzheimer’s where there's sort of an unfolding, or the peeling of the onion, and the more you un-peel, the more early memories come forward. My mom had some of those of difficulties and she would begin to tell me stories that I had never heard before.

Fleming: I had the same experience with my father who had mild Alzheimer’s and he told stories. I questioned, in my own mind, whether they were real stories, but I suspect from what you're saying that they were.

Treffert: They were, yeah, because I checked with some of her sisters about these particular things, and there's sort of that unfolding in Miller's patients. I'm talking about a stored memory bank, which I think is massive, and I'm talking about stored talent or ability. Now, I'm not suggesting we're all little Picassos or Mozarts, by any means, because I think talent is dealt out to us in the usual bell-shaped curve and when you see a prodigious savant, like Leslie, he happened to be dealt a really good hand genetically, I think.

Fleming: What other abilities do you think there might be?

Treffert: It's interesting with savants that of all the things that humans can do in our repertoire, it basically boils down to five abilities, whether these are congenital savants or acquired savants: music, art, lightning calculating, calendar calculating, which is another whole story, or visual-spatial abilities, like Temple Grandin can look at a piece of property and visualize instantly all of the feedlot kinds of things. Now, I'll run an occasional athletic savant. A little fellow who's five or six years old who's a golfer, for example. In Canada there's the fifth most famous pinball artist. I didn't know that pinball was an art form, but they competition that really is, so he's the world's fifth most famous pinball artist, or chess artist, but most of the acquired savants end up generally with music, art, or math. Occasionally there will be some other kind of ability, but I think when you say, "How many abilities are we talking about?" We're talking generally about those five areas.

Fleming: Which brings us to the question that I'm sure by this time everybody wants an answer to. Is there any way for us to access these things? I don't want you to take a baseball bat and whack me on the side of the head.

Treffert: Right.

Fleming: But I wouldn't mind recovering some of those memories or abilities.

Treffert: It's interesting, as I mentioned, golf, there was one of the world's famous golfers was Moe Norman, who was a Canadian golfer and if very much like Rain Man. In fact, the fellow who wrote Rain Man, Barry Morrow, has written the story of Moe Norman. They're going to make it into a movie this coming spring, and I think it'll be another Rain Man movie. Anyway, Tiger Woods said he's the best ball-striker he'd ever met. He could take a hundred golf balls and hit them and they would all fall in the distance of this table, for example. He just was remarkably accurate.

Fleming: This table's about three feet across.

Treffert: Right. Anyway, I showed some film of him and after the rotary meeting one of the persons standing around asking questions, everybody left and this fellow came up to me and said, "Where do I have to hit myself on the head to improve my golf game? I'm willing to do that." Part of what has been revealed to me or that has come to me working with a savant is that we do have this dormant capacity memory-wise and talent-wise, and how can one access that? Well, Dr. Allan Snyder in Australia uses what he calls a "thinking cap" where he actually puts to sleep the left anterior temporal area with rapid...

Fleming: Electrodes?

Treffert: Yeah, electrodes. It's called RTMS, rapid trans-magnetic stimulation, and you can do that. Neurologists do that when they're looking for certain kinds of areas. Anyway, he took volunteers from the campus and said, "I wonder if we did the Miller thing on volunteers. Would some savant abilities emerge?" He started with art, which is pretty subjective and not very convincing, but now he's doing some things where these students are able to solve a particular kind of puzzle which they otherwise aren't able to solve without the electrode. So there's that technological approach, the so-called thinking cap.

Fleming: That visual space thing, one of your early patients, one of the children could do jigsaw puzzles facedown, just looking at the shapes of 200 pieces and could put them together.

Treffert: Right. It was simply phenomenal to watch him. He was severely autistic, mute, no communication, but you could put this puzzle in front of him, picture side down, and he would put it together with the rhythm of a sewing machine just from the geometric shapes. I think that accessing that ability, we should be able to do that other than technologically, and you mentioned the new drawing on the right side of the brain is one way of accessing and I think there are other methods that I think if we work at it...We're kind of a left brain society. We depend on the left brain logical sequential thinking and language and they serve us marvelously but kind of to the exclusion of the right hemisphere art music “When I get time I'll do that or maybe when I retire.” We use those well-worn pathways and they serve us marvelously I think to the exclusion so I think sometimes it's just a matter of consciously what I call rummaging around in the right hemisphere and finding out what abilities there might be. A lot of people wait until they retire and they say “You know I've always wanted to be a geologist or an anthropologist and they then devote full-time and some of these people become very proficient and excited about what they do. I think it's more than just a matter of time available that I have the time to do that I mean I think they really do access...

Fleming: You think they're rummaging around in right sides of their brains and finding things they didn't know were there.

Treffert: Correct. Right and some of those flower forth rather remarkably. Jill Bolte Taylor is a woman who was a Harvard anatomist who had a stroke...

Fleming: She wrote My Stroke of Insight.

Treffert: Yeah. Right and if you read her book she talks about that she's able to visit her right side at will and then unvisit her right side and with that in her case it's not music or art but it's sort of a sense of peace a sense of togetherness.

Fleming: Now you've been studying this for half a century. How often do you visit the right side of your brain?

Treffert: More and more. I do try to. I'm not a musical or math person at all and there really isn't music or math in my...

Fleming: In your genetic memory.

Treffert: Right although my kids, now grown adults, have musical and math abilities clearly gotten from Mrs. Treffert not from me because she's an excellent musician. I think I have some mechanical ability which I can look at a project and put it together with some pieces that I might gather from...

Fleming: And this wasn't always true?

Treffert: No. Interesting that my dad was a machinist. People at work tell me and I didn't know this but they tell me that he had an exceptional memory because they said everybody else when he went to the tool crib and needed a tool of thousands of pieces of tools they would have to look up the number. Wally always knew the number just automatically so maybe some of that mechanical...and the other area of interest of mine is in orchards, growing fruit which I had never done before.

Fleming: There's an art to that.

Treffert: There is. I have about 40 trees apricots plums peaches pears apples cherries. I didn't know anything about it but the reason I started that was because when I was in practice a lot of my patients were farmers and I was amazed. Some of these people had less than an eighth grade education but their knowledge of nature and what was coming and how the soil and the earth and so forth was just simply astounding. So I've picked up on that a little bit. I'm doing better and there's so many areas where there's just reams of information that once you dig into it...So I would say I rummage around there a bit. Other people that I've known who are being able to explore areas so I think one can consciously. Meditation may be another way. I think real meditation does take us to another spot in our brain.

Fleming: It sounds as though there's a spiritual element to this study in that perhaps one of the things we need to do is to reassess the way we view the world.

Treffert: Yes I think that's true. It certainly has taken me into areas that I never would've ventured into genetic memories the farthest thing from my training and I'm not sure about Jung's idea of the collective unconscious but I do know about and have example after example of this genetic...I guess one of the questions that I ask myself is “Will we ever understand savant syndrome entirely?” and the reason I ask that is I'm wondering if there's a built-in limitation of the brain understanding itself. Is there a barrier? In other words the brain can understand the kidney and can understand the heart but can the brain transcend itself to explain itself? There may be that kind of a barrier and I'm not sure about that. It's interesting going back to let's say Lemke for example on the 60 Minutes program Morley Safer asked May Lemke “How do you explain this?” He's never had a piano lesson and she says “Well I think she said “that a part of the brain was damaged but God preserved another part of the brain a musical part of the brain and Leslie has access to that so that he would have a talent and he got it.” So her explanation is not very scientific but it's the three Rs.

Fleming: It's all fascinating and I am grateful to you. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Treffert: You're very welcome. It's my pleasure."

 

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