The man who could recite whole books by heart but could not button his own shirt has died. Kim Peek, born November 11, 1951 (on a Sunday, he will tell you) passed away last weekend from a heart attack. The inspiration for Dustin Hoffman's autistic character in the movie Rain Man, Peek provided scientists with an extraordinary window into the human brain and the nature of memory.
Peek suffered from many developmental problems--besides the inability to button up, he also walked with a sideways gait, could not handle the mundane tasks of everyday life and had trouble with abstraction: once told as a child to lower his voice, he slumped deeper into his chair to move his voice box physically lower. Yet he displayed phenomenal abilities. He memorized thousands of books, could read a page in 10 seconds or less and could recite passages verbatim after just one reading.
In "Inside the Mind of a Savant," from the December 2005 Scientific American, Darold A. Treffert and Daniel D. Christensen, two researchers who have studied savants, described Peek this way: "He knows all the area codes and zip codes in the U.S., together with the television stations serving those locales. He learns the maps in the front of phone books and can provide Yahoo-like travel directions within any major U.S. city or between any pair of them. He can identify hundreds of classical compositions, tell when and where each was composed and first performed, give the name of the composer and many biographical details…."
Peek's brain had several abnormalities, the strangest being the lack of a corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that enable the left and right hemispheres of the brain to communicate with each other. Just how that abnormality may have conferred savant syndrome to Peek is not known. An absent corpus callosum is not unique, and some people lacking the structure suffer no disabilities. In savant cases, it's not clear if brain damage stimulates compensatory development in some other neural area or whether it enables otherwise latent abilities to emerge.
Kim Peek was more than a human hard drive, however. A few years ago, he began demonstrating the formation of new skills by learning to play music, rather than simply talk about it.
Other past articles on savant syndrom include "Uncommon Talents: Gifted Children, Prodigies and Savants," by Ellen Winner (from Scientific American Presents: Exploring Intelligence, 1999) and "Islands of Genius," by Darold A. Treffert and Gregory L. Wallace (from Scientific American Mind, 2002).
Photo of Kim Peek by Darold A. Treffert