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Monday, May 30, 2011

Idiot Savant

Idiot Savant: An individual who exclusively focuses on the mastery of one aspect of performance (doing math, playing the piano) to the exclusion of all other skills, both technical and interpersonal. Known in less severe cases as nerd savants, idiot savants are to be distinguished from those folks who focus on all aspects of performance and are masters of none, but think they are savants in one way or another. They are known as 'that bunch of idiots' or more formally as religious fundamentalists or Republicans. (from Dr. Mezmer's Dictionary of Bad Psychology)

Isaac Newton: Idiot Genius?

As an individual who has a decidedly more than passing interest in psychology, my penchant for thinking about it all the time does call into question my ability to act and think about other important things, such as taking out the garbage.  So regardless of whether my musings on the topic merit a Nobel or booby prize, my wife will think that as a man about the house, I am a total idiot. Which brings me to man's special genius and perhaps handicap, namely his ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of almost everything else, and to do so forever. Isaac Newton was so accursed, and attributed his development of the calculus and the laws of gravity to simply thinking about it, constantly.  Of course, he also thought constantly about the alchemical disciplines that aimed to discover how transmute lead into gold, and it is here that posterity has judged him not as a savant, but as a total idiot. 

When we constantly think about any topic, we will master that topic, and amaze our friends with our intellectual acumen, if of course they care to listen. Mozart, Newton, and Einstein did this to popular and intellectual acclaim, but unfortunately male obsessions are a bit more mundane. So what do us guys have in mind for the future monomaniacal edification of the world? Usually it has something to do with recounting baseball statistics, reaching the fiftieth level in Dungeons and Dragons, or recalling all the episodes of Star Trek. Of course, we keep this special genius secret, partly because of modesty, but mainly because no one cares.  Which brings us of course to real idiot savants, which is an unfortunate and pejorative name to give to those individuals who through a quirk of nature are neurologically attuned to focus on inconsequential acts that in their perfect execution become quite extraordinary. Whether it be the ability to perform unerring mental calculation, play the piano by ear and with note worthy perfection, or just remember what one had for breakfast for all the days they have lived, idiot savants are too relentless in their quest for a single minded perfection. In fact, by being single minded, they have no mind for anything else, hence the unfortunate term idiot.

The curse of genius and madness is that both are single minded things.  Whether it is displayed in obsessive compulsiveness, addiction, or autism, to call it good or bad, creative or merely stupid depends ultimately upon the acclaim of others. It does make sanity a relative thing, and renders our judgment on the poor souls who think a bit too straight to remember their manners or when to take out the garbage to be, well, the mere opinion of an idiot. 

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