By Brooke Kosofsky Glassberg
December 03, 2010
These four remarkable men and women remind us of what the human brain is capable of.
His gift: The ability to draw intricate cityscapes—from memory. He once flew over London in a helicopter and then sketched four square miles of the city with astonishing accuracy, down to the locations of individual trees. Stephen has created canvases up to 30 feet long of Dubai, Jerusalem, Paris, Tokyo, and others. Watch him draw his masterpieces at StephenWiltshire.co.uk.
His mind: Stephen is autistic. His brain rewired itself to enhance areas that the rest of us don't use, explains Darold Treffert, M.D, the leading scholar on savant syndrome. "Thanks to his massive memory, Stephen can mentally photograph scenes like a digital camera, and then access those images at will."
His passion: Stephen spoke for the first time at age nine, and his first words were "paper" and "pen." "Art has always been Stephen's primary way of expressing himself," says his sister Annette.
His words: "When I used to make mistakes as a little boy, I would throw away my drawings. I don't make mistakes anymore."
Her gift: The ability to play any song on the piano after hearing it once. Brittany has taught herself more than 15,000 songs (her mother, Tammy, stopped counting eight years ago), and performed her own lyrical compositions at Carnegie Hall.
Her mind: Brittany was born four months early. She can't tie her shoes or write her name, and speaking is a challenge. But Maier's mysterious neurological condition makes her brilliant with notes, rhythm, and melodies.
Her first songs: A teacher taught Brittany to tap out "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," and then a few days later, the six-year-old shocked her parents by playing "Ave Maria"—a song she had heard on the radio on the way to school. Within a few months, she had learned hundreds more.
Her joy: Applause. Brittney programs her keyboard to clap for her. "More than a musician," says her mother, "Brittany wants to be an entertainer."
His gift: An extraordinary facility with numbers and words. Daniel has recited Pi from memory up to 22,514 digits, and learned Icelandic in a week. He can also speak 10 other languages, including one he invented called Manti.
His mind: Daniel has Asperger syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, and synesthesia, a neurological cross-wiring of the senses. In his mind, all words and numbers from 0 to 10,000 have a unique color, texture, and shape. Daniel credits his abilities to this rich, associative form of thinking and imagination.
His writing: In his book Embracing the Wide Sky, a scientific exploration of how his own brain works, Daniel argues that autistic thought is just a variation of what we all do—and points out the potential locked in every brain.
His belief: "I was always a good pupil because language and math came alive for me," he says. "Words and numbers felt as real to me as people. In a sense, I made friends with them."
His gift: The ability to mold animal sculptures that are anatomically precise in every detail—and to do so with uncanny speed. After catching a fleeting image of a buffalo or mustang on TV, Alonzo can create a 3-D replica of the creature in minutes.
His mind: This skill emerged after a bad fall when he was a toddler, which caused severe trauma in his brain, resulting in an IQ in the 40-50 range.
His material: During Alonzo's teenage years in a mental institution, staff members took away his modeling clay to use it as an incentive for better performance in school. Instead, Alonzo used window caulk to sculpt tiny figures.
His escape: "When he functions in the world of art, his disability evaporates," says Nancy Mason, a care provider who works with Alonzo. "The animals just pour off his fingers."