Staff Picks

The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain

August 18, 2015


Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow provide tricks and tools to tap the higher mental abilities we usually associate with savants.

People with extraordinary mental abilities are sometimes looked upon with suspicion or unease, but the truth is that many of us long to have these abilities.

Few of us after watching the film Rain Man said of Raymond, "I wish I was like that!" We normally associate savant characters of popular narratives with social deficiencies or tragic accidents. A streak of genius is incredible and can produce amazing results, sure, but at what cost? In the opening chapter of their new book, The Superhuman Mind, Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow cite Maurice Ravel's Bolro, a piece now recognized as an orchestral masterpiece.

As it turns out Ravel probably was also suffering from frontotemporal dementia when he wrote Bolro. After its premiere at the Opra de Paris in 1928 a woman in the audience was heard shouting that Ravel was mad, to which Ravel responded, "You, my friend, are the only one here who understood the piece."

The beauty of Ravel's Bolro came at the cost of madness. For us common folk, if we can be assured no brain trauma or life-changing negative side effects, any of us would jump at the opportunity to be smarter and work better. Most of us already know about the common tools for improving our work and our lives. Those tools are often accessory—external items or practices we use to organize or enhance our work: lists, routines, and rules. But what about internally? What if we could enhance the very organ that helps us do our best work—the brain? While the "10% of the brain" concept is often understood as a mythic oversimplification of reality, it seems that there are possibilities that could put enhanced brain performance within reach.

Brogaard and Marlow explore this possibility in the The Superhuman Mind. The book's chapters offer case studies from Brogaard's own research lab in Miami. In many cases, brain injuries or neurological disorders facilitate extraordinary capacities inside the subject's brain. One such case cited in the book is John Carter, whose frontotemporal dementia allowed him to become a brilliant painter for a brief time before he lost all ability to speak—and eventually to paint, as well.

The cases like John Carter are interesting to read, certainly, but what is the point? A seemingly regular man began to lose his mind, could for a while paint great works, and then died at age 68. What Brogaard and Marlow do with The Superhuman Mind is distill those characteristics of an illness or trauma that allow the sudden skyrocketing of specific capacities. Frontotemporal dementia involves a breakdown of neural processing that forces the brain's more language-oriented region to relinquish control and sees a spike in creative ability. But for those of us without frontotemporal dementia, allowing our creative brains to run free requires exercise. Specifically, we must learn to quiet our left brain—learn to see literally, or to experience our surroundings without the filter of linguistics or survival.

Brogaard and Marlow suggest helpful algorithms and synesthesia training to provide non-savant humans the chance to operate more like savants. These "tricks" can be internalized over a period of weeks or months until the neural pathways are forged and the shortcut has become almost automatic.

Many folks believe that only special brains can achieve the ultimate level of extraordinary mental ability and that excellence is an inborn talent bestowed on a select few. But it turns out that all brains have hidden superhuman abilities. We just have to use the right keys to unlock them.

There is no substitute for a life-ending neurological disorder or a metal rod through the brain. The methods suggested in The Superhuman Mind require work, but they also promise results at nothing more than the cost of time and effort.

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