Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kim Peek: Extraordinary Memory; No Corpus Callosum

Kim Peek, who died December 19, 2009, was the extraordinary fellow upon whom the savant character in the movie Rain Man was based. He was a man born without a corpus callosum--the same brain structure all marsupials lack.

Kim Peek was born on November 11, 1951, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Doctors discovered a funny, baseball-sized blister on the back of his enlarged head. He was a sluggish infant and he cried a lot. By the age of 9 months doctors expected he would be mentally and physically impaired for life and recommended the parents institutionalize him. They declined. From the beginning, his head was about 30% larger than normal. His head was so heavy he couldn't even hold it up until his body grew big enough to support it at about the age of four.

By the age of 16 months, Kim had taught himself to read. When he consulted a dictionary to define the word "confidential," his parents realized he could read newspapers," Telegraph.co.uk obituaries. Kim memorized the entire Bible by the age of seven.

His parents tried to give him a normal upbringing, but Kim was expelled from school for disruptive behavior. Schools of the day had no special education teachers to help him. His father hired retired teachers to educate him at home. He finished the high school curriculum by the age of 14. His mother looked after him until his parents' divorce, then the task fell to his father.

Kim was unable to brush his teeth, dress himself, cook food or shave without help. Yet, Kim memorized the complete works of Shakespeare and every volume of the Reader's Digest condensed books available to him. "He used telephone directories for exercises in mental arithmetic, adding each column of seven-digit numbers together in his head until he reached figures in the trillions," Telegraph.co.uk obituary (link posted above).

Barry Morrow, author of the script that went on to become the movie, Rain Man, met Kim at a retarded persons convention in Arlington, Texas, in 1984. He spent four hours with Kim. He asked Fran, Kim's father, if he realized that Kim had memorized every postal code, area code and road number in the United States. He urged Fran to introduce Kim to the public. Fran ignored the request fearing Kim would become a freak show.

Dustin Hoffman spent six hours with Kim and copied Kim's rapid monotone, rocking motions and child-like emotions to create the Raymond Babbitt character in the movie. Morrow wanted Kim to visit a casino to see how he would count the cards, but Kim refused on grounds that it was unethical.

Morrow received an academy award for his script and gave Kim the Oscar. The statue became his most prized possession. He took it everywhere.

Because of the film, Kim finally received the high school diploma he had previously been denied. The film opened other doors too. Because of the respect he received for his abilities from these persons outside his family, he ended his reclusive lifestyle, made many friends and ventured out into the world. Fran took Kim on a series of speaking engagements where he amazed and dazzled audiences. Father and son emphasized the principle that each person has some kind of ability which others lack. Their motto: "Recognizing and respecting differences in others, and treating everyone like you want them to treat you, will help make our world a better place for everyone. Care... be your best. You don't have to be handicapped to be different. Everyone is different!" Fran certainly did his best to embody that motto, striving to equip Kim to achieve all he could.

Kim could read a page of a book, front and back simultaneously, one page with each eye, regardless of whether the book was upside down or sideways, in 8 to 10 seconds. He remembered 98% of everything he read. He was interested in fifteen different areas, a few of those were: world and American history, sports, movies, geography, actors and actresses, the Bible, church history, literature, Shakespeare and classical music. Besides postal codes, area codes, etc., Kim also memorized the maps included in phone books and could provide travel directions within any major city in the U.S. He could identify hundreds of classical compositions, tell when and where each composition was composed and first performed, give the composer's name and biographical details; he could even discuss formal and tonal components of the music. Kim never became set in his ways. He began learning to play piano in 2002. With this new skill, he could play many of the multitudes of pieces he'd memorized earlier and discuss the different properties of each piece.

Unlike most savants, Kim understood what he memorized, though he often had trouble with abstract or conceptual thinking. Scientific American Mind describes an incident when Fran asked Kim to lower his voice in a restaurant. Kim scooted lower in his chair so that his voice box would be lower. Other times he proved ingenious. In one talk he was asked about Lincoln's Gettysbug Address. He answered, "Will's house, 227 North West Front Street, but he stayed there only one night--he gave the speech the next day." He didn't intend the answer as a joke, but when the questioner laughed, he saw the humor and recycled the joke at future events. Once Kim attended a Shakespeare festival sponsored by a philanthropist whose laryngitis threatened to silence him. The man's initials were O.C. Kim quipped, "O.C., can you say?" Another time, exhibiting his lightning ability to access the vast information stored in his head, "...an interviewer offered that he had been born on March 31, 1956, Peek noted, in less than a second, that it was a Saturday on Easter weekend," Scientific American Mind, June/July 2006, page 52.

The technical name for the blister Kim suffered as an infant is encephalocele. An encephalocele is when the neural tube fails to close. A baby can have one of these anywhere on his head. It is usually filled with fluid, but can contain brain matter. Fortunately for Kim Peek, his encephalocele was on the back of his head and it resolved itself. But there were other abnormalities. Kim had a malformed cerebellum and lacked a corpus callosum.

Some people born without a corpus callosum, called "agenesis of the corpus callosum," are able to function normally. Others suffer problems with co-ordination; inability to name colors without first associating the color with an object; inability to read facial expressions; problems with abstract reasoning and humor...some are savants.

"It would seem that those born without a corpus callosum somehow develop back channels of communication between the hemispheres. Perhaps the resulting structures allow the two hemispheres to function, in certain respects, as one giant hemisphere, putting normally separate functions under the same roof," Scientific American Mind, June/July 2006, page 52. The brain hemispheres of persons whose corpus callosum is cut during adulthood begin to work almost independently of each other--commonly called "split brain" syndrome.

Sometimes savant abilities appear after damage to the left hemisphere. A theory on why this happens is the idea that the right hemisphere develops new skills and sometimes recruits from the left brain's tissue for tasks it previously didn't undertake. Another theory is that the left hemisphere exerts a kind of tyranny over the right hemisphere. Once the right hemisphere is released from this domination, it can achieve great things. (See January 24th, 2007, post titled, "Darn Domineering Left Brains and Subversive Right Brains..." on this blog)

For more check out: Savant Syndrome: Island of Genius

Over the Edge dabbles in various aspects of what it might be like to lack a corpus callosum. The characters are not savants as Kim Peek was, just as not all persons who lack a corpus callosum are savants, but they share characteristics with him and with persons who develop split brain syndrome as adults. As marsupial humanoids, they have the ability to read material as Kim Peek did, each eye reading independently of the other. However, in Over the Edge, each brain hemisphere is given its own language, the left hemisphere an abstract symbol alphabet and the right hemisphere a hieroglyphic based language. In the story, characters' brain hemispheres operate in harmony until some conflict occurs--then battle begins. Characters of Over the Edge also lead double lives, in effect, giving part of their time to allow one hemisphere to shine more brilliantly than the other and vice versa. In the story, these times are called "half times."

Understanding how the brain works, how the mind works, how the spirit functions within the brain it is given, are themes of Over the Edge.

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1 comment:

Joseph Galbraith said...

I was also born with cACC, Kim is one of my heroes!