The term ‘savant’ may be most often used for people such as Daniel Tammet, who is autistic and can recite more than 22,000 digits of pi from memory. [See my post Savant abilities and learning differences relate to developing multiple talents]
In his book Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant, Darold A. Treffert, MD writes about both autistic and “normal” savants: neurotypical persons who have some savant-like skills and capacities, but without developmental or brain disabilities.
The savant label seems to be mostly used for cognitive abilities like prodigious memory, such as Tammet’s, or calculating the day on which a random date falls, or recalling a name and phone number after memorizing an entire phone directory.
But what about other exceptional sensory processing abilities?
In the 1980’s, Arthur B. Lintgen, M.D. could look at the groove patterns in vinyl records and correctly identify the piece of music.
A TIME magazine article (Read Any Good Records Lately?, January 4, 1982) reported:
Lintgen simply holds a disc flat in front of him, turning it slightly this way and that and peering along its grooves through his thick glasses. After a few seconds he calmly announces, as the case may be, “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring” or Strauss’s Atpine Symphony,” or “Janacek’s Sinfonietta.”
A passionate music buff and audiophile, Lintgen (pronounced Lint-jen) has been regaling friends with the stunt for five years, ever since being challenged at a party and finding, to his surprise, that he could do it.
Performing recently for a television crew from That’s Incredible! he scored 20 for 20 in a demonstration set up by Temple University Musicologist Stimson Carrow.
[Image: Record grooves under an electron microscope, from the SynthGear blog. The description notes “the little bumps are dust on the record.” Click to see it larger.]
he post “vinyl vision” on the The Skeptic’s Dictionary blog by Robert T. Carroll, Ph.D. – author of the book The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions – provides a good overview of Dr. Lintgen’s talent, plus links to other articles, and notes, “Once it was disclosed that he used ordinary sense perception, his vast knowledge of orchestral music from Beethoven onward and of recordings of such music, and deductive inference from general rules about such music, the mass media and the public lost interest.”
A New York Times article (A Man Who Sees What Others Hear, by Bernard Holland, November 19, 1981) described his attention to detail.
First, Dr. Lintgen is a dedicated audiophile with an extensive knowledge of the record catalogue past and present. He can identify only music that he knows, and he guarantees a high rate of success only in orchestral music ranging from Beethoven to the present.
Earlier music has a less demonstrable contrast of dynamics, he says, and chamber and solo instrumental music create erratic patterns to the eye. He also prefers newer recordings to the narrower sonic range of early LPs. “I get a lot of these right,” he said. “But I’m much surer within my own limits.”
This range excludes excerpts or suite arrangements, because the length, structuring and order of different movements are part of the doctor’s deductive processes. “I have a knowledge of musical structure and of the literature,” he said.
“And I can correlate this structure with what I see. Loud passages reflect light differently. In the grossest terms, they look silvery. Record companies spread the grooves in forte passages; they have a more jagged, saw-tooth look. Soft passages look blacker. I also know how the pressings of different labels look, so I can often figure out who is conducting.”
Fragrance signature archeology
I was reminded of the Lintgen story, which I heard about some years ago, after listening today to a PRI/The World radio program The sweet smell of literature.
From their site:
In the meantime, though, the paper kind populates bookstores and libraries.
And the older a book is, the smellier it is.
Here is an audio clip from the program, with Alex Gallafent – about how some librarians and conservators are able to detect fragrances from book pages that sometimes indicate age, country of origin and other facts about them.