What do you make of the commonplace notion that we only use 10 percent of our brains? I have always taken it to mean that we could all afford to learn about 10 times as much stuff as we do before having any overload trouble. Too bad we seldom bother. Like most people, I watch for information that confirms my pre-existing notions, and Lo! An article in The Economist about the link between genius, or savant syndrome and autism roughly confirmed my suspicion.
The movie “Rain Man” is a fair presentation of savant syndrome. I had assumed that such savants are born, not made, but an element of the syndrome called RRBI, restrictive and repetitive behaviors and interests, must indeed be made, even if the inclination towards RRBI is inborn.
Malcolm Gladwell, in a book called “Outliers” which collated research done on outstanding people, suggested that anyone could become an expert in anything by practising for 10,000 hours. It would not be hard for an autistic individual to clock up that level of practice for the sort of skills, such as mathematical puzzles, that many neurotypicals would rapidly give up on.
So what happens when a neurotypical does clock up 10,000 hours?
There are, however, examples of people who seem very neurotypical indeed achieving savant-like skills through sheer diligence. Probably the most famous is that of London taxi drivers, who must master the Knowledge—ie, the location of 25,000 streets, and the quickest ways between them—to qualify for a licence.
The expert here is Eleanor Maguire of University College, London, who famously showed a few years ago that the shape of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in long-term learning, changes in London cabbies. Dr Maguire and her team have now turned their attention to how cabbies learn the Knowledge.
The prodigious geographical knowledge of the average cabbie is, indeed, savant-like. But Dr Maguire recently found that it comes at a cost. Cabbies, on average, are worse than random control subjects and—horror—also worse than bus drivers, at memory tests such as word-pairing. Surprisingly, that is also true of their general spatial memory. Nothing comes for nothing, it seems, and genius has its price.
25,000 streets, and no Manhattan-style grid to make it easy! Plus, London cabbies must also know all hotels, theaters, museums, hospitals, shops, embassies and so much more. I love that they simply call it The Knowledge. 10,000 hours is about 3 1/2 years of 8 hour days. Obtaining The Knowledge can be a four year project.
So now we know. Spend 45 minutes a week reading maps. Look for places you have been. Look for places you have heard of and might like to know more about or visit. Think about new ways you could travel to work. What might be worth seeing along the way? Who could you drop in on? 45 minutes a week. You might get 2% of the way towards a situation where you have clogged up your mind to the point where your ability to do crosswords or learn to read music is slightly impaired.