The difference between concrete intuition (or complex instincts) and abstract intuition is something I’ve alluded to in the past.
What I have, personally, is an unusual level of concrete intuition. For example, I was walking home last night and, without going into too much detail, became deathly afraid of the way some leaves were being blown across the street. It was possibly the most irrational response anyone has ever had to leaves, and I was aware of this at the time, but I was still on maximum high alert, CODE RED. About five minutes later a cop car went by with the siren on, and some coyotes started howling in response, alarmingly close. (A kennel of dogs started barking and this probably scared them off.) So what probably happened is that on some level I’d heard or smelled the coyotes, and my body kicked into fight-or-flight mode without seeing fit to inform me why.
This sort of thing works for all different sorts of aesthetic responses, all the way up to having an obsession with Tolkien. When an aspie first picks up Tolkien, it’s like when a vegetarian smells a pan of sizzling bacon. It takes years of mentally teasing out exactly why this is, but it only takes that first whiff to inform us that there’s something nutritious here that we desperately desire (perhaps to excess). All addictions are caused by such deficiencies.
Everyone has a little bit of synesthesia. I think it’s required for basic functioning of the brain, like perception or rationality. But for whatever reason, savants (functional or not) always have an extraordinary level of synesthesia. And people with extraordinary synesthesia combined with extraordinary intelligence always acquire an immediate fascination for the same things: math, physics, chemistry, music. Every other day I hear about somebody suffering some kind of head trauma (WHAM) then waking up to see that numbers have colors, then suddenly (BAM) they can’t get enough of math, physics, chemistry, and music. WHAM, BAM, it’s like clockwork. Eventually one sees the pattern.
Like I said, I think everybody has at least a little bit of this. Otherwise, we’d all be like those poor souls who hear music as mere noise, having no emotional reaction to it. But I believe these savants are on the other side of an inflection point, such that this became a self-reinforcing and dominant mental process. The repair process of the psyche seems to have gotten out of hand (obviously in a good way, although such people are often bullied, over-pressured, and exploited for their talents).
So I believe that the experience of savants can be explained as a result of this inflected synesthesia, and the aesthetic observation that “truth is beauty”.
One of the stranger experiences of this IQ range is that I often know with certainty that a novel mathematical fact is true, but then I have to spend 2 to 4 weeks developing a rigorous proof that tells me how I knew it was true. (To be precise, I did know how I knew, but not in anything remotely resembling human math-paper communication.) Intuition is a strange beast.
Berkeley Math Professor, IQ 150
Comment on The Excluded
The high achievement of such people can be understood as a simple attraction to viability-as-beauty. Synesthesia produces the instinctive revulsion to ideas which are untenable in reality, which is experienced by the savant as ugliness. In contrast, reading a chemistry book would be like reading Tolkien, or listening to one’s favorite music. (Compare this to the pedestrian observation that neurotypical girls have terrible taste in literature and music.)
In order to empathize with how this works in abstract fields like science which produce no emotional reaction in ordinary people, I believe we ought to compare savants’ experience to our own experience of music. They hold the same emotional fascination. Some people possess lots of energy and/or the desire to communicate with similar minds, in which case they will write or perform music as well as listening to it. This is typically how the creative drive is born. It is an extraverted process of mind, expressing one’s emotional response to their perceptions. If the audience responds favorably, the dopamine rush can become an addiction, thus producing an artist (having more concrete intuition) or a genius* (having more abstract intuition).
With this analogy in mind as context, it is suddenly much easier to understand how a genius can be simultaneously conscientious and psychotic (Eysenck), both tending to the extreme.
Put on a song that you haven’t heard in a few years. You can still remember pretty much every note, right? This may not be true when the music isn’t playing, but in context you’re always able to remember exactly which note comes next. Compare this experience to the extraordinary memory of savants. I don’t believe their memory is categorically eidetic, but it is extremely good within their fields of interest. This can therefore be understood in the same way as associative recall of music: easy recall of aesthetic experiences combined with the synesthesic experience of ideas as aesthetics.
Combine this with the aspergic tendency to amass trivia related to their subject of fascination, and an extremely high IQ, and the ability of von Neumann to memorize phone books is also explained.
*According to this terminology, I ought to be referring to myself as an “artist” rather than as a genius. However, this is possibly the only thing in the world that will come off as even more pretentious than calling myself a genius, so “genius” will have to do.