Wednesday, December 30, 2009

the late kim peek...,

Scientific American | Kim Peek possessed one of the most extraordinary memories ever recorded. Until we can explain his abilities, we cannot pretend to understand human cognition

Editor's Note: The main text of this story, originally published in the December 2005 issue of Scientific American, is being made available in light of the recent death of Kim Peek.

When J. Langdon Down first described savant syndrome in 1887, coining its name and noting its association with astounding powers of memory, he cited a patient who could recite Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire verbatim. Since then, in almost all cases, savant memory has been linked to a specific domain, such as music, art or mathematics. But phenomenal memory is itself the skill in a 54-year-old man named Kim Peek. His friends call him “Kim-puter.”

He can, indeed, pull a fact from his mental library as fast as a search engine can mine the Internet. He read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October in one hour and 25 minutes. Four months later, when asked, he gave the name of the Russian radio operator in the book, referring to the page describing the character and quoting several passages verbatim. Kim began memorizing books at the age of 18 months, as they were read to him. He has learned 9,000 books by heart so far. He reads a page in eight to 10 seconds and places the memorized book upside down on the shelf to signify that it is now on his mental “hard drive.”

Kim’s memory extends to at least 15 interests—among them, world and American history, sports, movies, geography, space programs, actors and actresses, the Bible, church history, literature, Shakespeare and classical music. 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, and even discuss the formal and tonal components of the music. Most intriguing of all, he appears to be developing a new skill in middle life. Whereas before he could merely talk about music, for the past two years he has been learning to play it.

It is an amazing feat in light of his severe developmental problems— characteristics shared, in varying extents, by all savants. He walks with a sidelong gait, cannot button his clothes, cannot manage the chores of daily life and has great difficulties with abstraction. Against these disabilities, his talents— which would be extraordinary in any person—shine all the brighter.