The Mega-Savant

Kim Peek has been described as a “living Google” and a “mega-savant.” He had what is called Savant Syndrome, someone with a super-extraordinary skill who, at the same time, is mentally handicapped. His fascinating story reminds us of the untapped potential of the mind — and the siyata diShmaya needed to convert potential into genius.

The interviewer tosses rapid-fire questions at Kim Peek, arguably the world’s most famous savant. “Do you know George Washington’s birthday?

“February 22, 1732.”

“What day of the week was it?”

“Friday.”

“And what’s the date of his death?”

“December 14, 1799, on a Saturday.”

“Do you remember President Lincoln’s birthday?”

“He was born on February 12, 1809, on a Sunday. He was assassinated on Friday, April 14, 1865.”

Now the interviewer switches tactics, asking Peek random dates that are not famous. “What day of the week was August 13, 1911?”

“Sunday.”

“What day of the week was May 20, 1921?”

“Friday.”

“Which day of the week did May 7, 1918 come out?”

“Tuesday.”

“And in which years thereafter did May 7 come out on Tuesday? Let’s say for the next 65 years.”

“In 1929, 1935, 1940….”

Despite the change in tactics, Peek fires back answers just as rapidly as he’s asked, invariably in less than a second.

Savant of Savants

Fewer than 100 individuals are classified as savants – someone with extraordinary, even seemingly supernatural mental abilities, who at the same time is handicapped with significant mental disabilities. A savant has been described as “an island of genius in the brain of someone who is otherwise extremely limited intellectually.”

Kim Peek was a savant among savants, a “mega-savant” – someone with a particularly confounding mixture of disability and brilliance. Whereas the genius of most savants is limited to one area, Peek instantly answered the most arcane questions on subjects as diverse as history, sports, music, geography and culture.

“About once a century,” explains Dr. Darold Treffert, an expert on savants, “comes along a truly stellar savant and Kim is in that category. Kim’s memory is not only deep but it’s wide, and that is very unique among savants… He’s become living Google. He can take these bits of information that are scattered from all these places and put them together in a way that is really remarkable. He’s the Mount Everest of memory.”

Peek’s outstanding uncanny facility extended not only to the calendar, but all the area codes and ZIP codes in the US. He learned the maps in the front of phone books so well that he became a walking GPS, providing MapQuest-like travel directions within any major US city or between any pair of them. He could 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.

In fact, he had memorized so many Shakespearean plays and musical compositions and was such a stickler for accuracy that his father, Fran, had to stop him from attending performances, because he would stand up and correct the actors or the musicians.

“He’d stand up and say: ‘Wait a minute! The trombone is two notes off,’” Fran Peek said.

Stick Him in American Fork

Laurence Kim Peek was born on November 11, 1951. His parents took him to a neurologist at nine months of age to be examined. The neurologist – who informed the parents that he was late for a golf game and only had five minutes to talk to them – said he had read Kim’s medical history and that he was so severely mentally retarded that he would never be able to learn or even walk. The neurologist advised that Kim be put in the institution called American Fork and told the parents to “forget about him.”

Long after the neurologist was gone and Kim had become world famous for his genius, whenever he was reminded of the impatient (and arrogant) doctor, he would mockingly blurt out in a sing-song tone, “Stick him in American Fork.” The fact that he said it with a laugh showed how far Kim came not only in terms of his life situation, but emotionally.

Of course, back in 1951, no one knew any of that. Nevertheless, for Fran and his wife, there was no question that they would raise Kim themselves at home. They were going to do everything they could to “give him as much love as possible and help as much as we could.”

Early Signs

Early on, they began to see unusual and amazing things.

Kim had an unusually large head. It was so heavy that it took several years before he could hold it up on his own. When he crawled, his father said, “He used his forehead almost like a snow plough. It was always red.” When Kim became strong enough, he’d crawl to the bookshelf and pull heavy encyclopedias off the bottom shelf in the living room. His parents thought he was just causing general mayhem, as little kids exploring their world are wont to do. They didn’t realize that Kim was reading them. And not just readying them, but memorizing them – the index volumes of the encyclopedias.

One day, when he was less than three, he overheard his mother say the word confidential. He crawled to the shelf, opened up the “C” volume, and quickly turned to the word “confidential,” as his parents watched. “How does he know alphabetical order?” Mr. Peek said to Mrs. Peek. Suddenly, Kim interjected, “Well, I know the alphabet.”

They were shocked. They suddenly realized that he wasn’t just pulling books off the shelf. He was reading them! Indeed, every time he finished a book, he’d turn it upside down. At the end of the day, there would be perhaps 20 to 30 upside-down books around the edges of the living room.

“How he learned to read,” Mr. Peek would later say, “I just don’t know.”

The Peeks lived in Salt Lake City, Utah and the public library became Kim’s favorite place. He would devour books on anything, as many as eight thick ones in a day. A page that the average person would take three minutes to read would take Kim no more than 10 seconds! He could read both pages of an open book at once, one page with one eye and the other with the other eye – and remembered about 98% of it.

When Kim was six, another doctor recommended a lobotomy. By then, Kim had read and memorized the first eight volumes of the encyclopedias, so his parents said, “No, thanks.” They engaged a part-time tutor for Kim from the age of 7. Kim completed a high school curriculum by 14.

A Gift with a Price

Despite that, Kim’s gifts came at a price. His motor skills were extremely poor. He couldn’t dress himself, comb his hair, or brush his teeth. His social skills were also extremely poor. He would never look people in the face (although he trained himself to do so later in life). He would be unintentionally inappropriate, standing face-to-face with a stranger unexpectedly or blurting out something – sometimes intelligible, sometimes not – loudly. He could get stuck on a word, phrase or subject and become very tense if someone tried to get him to change topics.

“Now occasionally I get impatient with him,” Kim’s father said years later, “if he gets stuck on something that I have a hard time breaking off of and he’s getting very tense about it, or he’s yelling. Yeah, he has those pop-ups every once in a while. But now it never takes more than 10 or 15 minutes to get him changed to another subject and then he calms down.”

Kim’s parents divorced in 1981 and his father began caring for him alone. “Looking after Kim,” Mr. Peek once said, “is more than a full-time job. About 30 hours a day,” he added, chuckling. “30 hours a day and 10 days a week – but that’s what most parents who have children with disabilities feel like.”

Fame

The wider world would never have learned of Kim’s abilities if not for a chance encounter.

In 1984, a convention on developmental disabilities was held in Arlington, Texas. Fran Peek, who helped organize the event, was introduced to a writer named Barry Morrow. “I’ll never forget the day,” Morrow said. “Suddenly, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and there was Kim nose-to-nose with me. He cocked his head and said, ‘Think about yourself Barry Morrow’ – and then he wandered off across the room.”

As Morrow thought about the strange encounter, suddenly there was another tap on his shoulder, and he found Kim in his face again blurting random facts. Amused. he started asking Kim questions on all types of subjects – history, sports, music. Without batting an eyelash, Kim answered them all like a machine.

Then Fran Peek came over and introduced himself. “How does he know so much?” Morrow asked.

“I didn’t know he knew so much either,” said Mr. Peek. “I’m always learning about things I didn’t know he knew.”

Morrow was flabbergasted that such a human being existed and that he had never heard of a savant. He could not get Kim Peek out of his mind, so later he called Fran. “You have something nobody else maybe in the world has and I want you to share him with me. I, in turn, want to share him with the world if I can figure out a story centered around Kim as the main character.”

The story became a film, making Kim an overnight phenomenon. Fame helped Kim come out of his shell and become a social being. Soon, nobody was a stranger to him. “Barry influenced me more than any other person,” Kim would tell audiences.

Morrow and Kim became friends. “I love the way he’s flowered,” Morrow said, “and it belies the myth that people don’t change, especially people with developmental disabilities.”

Studying Kim

In 2005, Fran Peek was nearing 80 years old. For all his fame and newfound social comfort, Kim – by now 54 – was dependent on his father for everything, including putting on his shoes and socks. “My dad is approaching 80,” Kim told an interviewer. “Only one other member of my dad’s immediate family has ever reached that mark and it’s my grandma, which makes this year so important to us.”

They agreed to submit Kim to a series of tests that might help scientists better understand his brain and help him better fend for himself. Neurologist Elliot Sherr of the University of California began taking Kim’s case history by asking Mr. Peek how much Kim weighed at birth. “I think about 10 pounds 9 ounces or something like that.”

Suddenly, Kim interjected: “Yes, 10-9. Large head size, poor muscle tone.”

Sherr asked Kim to move his eyes without moving his head. Kim found it difficult. Sherr asked him to perform other minor tasks, but Kim was too distracted. “This was not a formal neuropsychological assessment,” the doctor concluded, “but he had a very hard time focusing as well as following directions.”

Later, Kim was tested by psychologist Rita Jeremy. She read to him a series of numbers – 7, 1, 3, 9, 4, 2, 5, 6, 8 – and then asked Kim to repeat them. He did so with ease. Then she read a different string of numbers and asked him to repeat it backwards. He also did so with relative ease. Once, he made a mistake, but self-corrected himself. Dr. Jeremy found this most remarkable, because most people would have forgotten the original string. The fact that Kim didn’t showed that the information was not just in his short-term memory.

However, while his memory was off the charts, Kim had trouble with tasks that required new thinking and for which he couldn’t call upon facts in his memory. When he had to analyze information, he had great difficulty.

The next day, they went to the University of California at San Francisco, where they met neuroradiologist Pratik Mukherjee, who was doing pioneering work in mapping the human brain. He connected Kim to equipment that would help the scientists see the network of connectors inside the regions of Kim’s brain. They discovered that Kim was missing the main connection between the left and right halves of the brain, a condition called agenesis of the corpus callosum. It short, Kim was missing the corpus callosum, the largest bundle of white matter that joins the two halves of the normal human brain. Not only did Kim’s brain lack this major highway between the two halves of the brain, but the fibers that were meant to make that highway were traveling elsewhere in peculiar directions. The doctor speculated whether Kim’s amazing memory and his strange habit of making far reaching connections resulted from his brain compensating for the missing corpus callosum.

The next day, the Kims visited Professor V.S. Ramachandran at UC San Diego. After administering some memory tests, the professor confirmed his hunch that Kim was not editing, censoring and encoding the information in the same way normal people do. In this scientist’s opinion, Kim’s lack of conceptual encoding made him and other savants “adhere slavishly to every little detail.” While this improved their memory in some respects, it was at a price. For instance, when Kim was asked metaphors, such as “get a grip on yourself,” he literally started grabbing himself. He took the metaphor literally.

At Oxford

A few days later, Kim and his father were on their way to England to take up an invitation to visit Oxford Union. It was their first trip abroad. Oxford Union boasts a tradition stretching back to 1823 of hosting debates and speakers from among the world’s most prominent individuals. The union vice president started the proceedings with a history question for Kim. “When did the German U-boats sink the Lusitania?”

Without a moment’s pause, Kim responded, “May 7, 1915. It was a Friday.”

Then he opened the floor for questions. One student came up with a question that he thought would surely stump Kim: “In British history, who is the only prime minister to be assassinated?”

“His name was Percival, sometime in the spring of 1812.”

The young man smiled, amazed the Peek could recall such an obscure fact instantly and without recourse to books or a computer.

The questions kept coming – and Kim responded to them all with the same amazing speed and accuracy. Then someone asked a question with a more personal tone: “Are you happy?”

“I’m happy just to look at you.”

This was the same Kim Peek who for so many years was so socially isolated and awkward. He handled the audience like a seasoned pro – which he was by this time, having appeared live in front of millions of strangers.

The audience also posed a question to Fran Peek: “What’s it like to be Kim’s father and companion?”

“I taught him half of everything I know,” Mr. Peek replied jokingly with a smile. “No, I’m very proud of being his father. Of course, he’s a real challenge. I have to take care of most of his physical needs and some of the showers in England aren’t the biggest in the world, you know.” The audience laughed. Then Mr. Peek added, “It’s a real challenge – but he’s not for sale.” That triggered an even louder eruption of laughter.

The Same Shadow

After the trip, Fran Peek reflected on the future. “It’s getting frightening now. I’m going to be 80 in six months and my health isn’t the best. Doctors want me to keep as healthy as I can to take care of him.”

The greatest fear any parent has regarding a child with developmental disabilities is that he will die before the child, and yet no parent wants the child to have died before them. It’s a true conundrum. What do you do?

For Kim, his father was everything. “My dad and I share the same shadow,” he said.

When Mr. Peek heard Kim say that, he told an interviewer, “It profoundly struck me. Maybe he can’t reason, but he sure hit that one right on the button.”

As things turned out, Kim died first – on December 19, 2009, at home in Salt Lake City. He was 58. Fran Peek died less than five years later, on April 5, 2014. He was 88.

Savants fascinate us because they reveal a capacity of the human mind few ever reach. The mind is the most unique phenomenon in the entire universe. Studying savants helps us appreciate our intellectual gifts and inspires us to strive for our full potential.