Speed Reader and Immense Memory

Kim Peek, Rain Man

Preceding the savant Daniel Tammet by several years, Kim Peek is the real life Rain Man whom the Dustin Hoffman character was based in the movie. Described as a confounding mixture of disability and brilliance, Kim is in love with knowledge. Kim Peek is probably the world’s most famous savant. Kim was diagnosed as being mentally retarded at birth, but with father Fran’s unflagging support he has developed a memory that is without equal.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Kim has lived here all of his life. The local library is Kim’s favourite place in the world. Kim devours books on anything and everything, as many as eight in a day. He reads at a phenomenal rate, a page that may take you or I three minutes will take Kim about 10 seconds. He reads the left page with his left eye and the right page with his right eye and will retain about 98% of it. He has 15 subject areas but about the only thing he can’t do is, he can’t reason out mathematical problems.

In 1951, doctors wanted to place Kim in a mental hospital named American Fork. Fran was determined that Kim would not go to an institution, he would be raised at home as a normal child.

Fran and Kim’s mother parted in 1975, leaving Fran as Kim’s sole carer. Fran is now almost 80 years old. Kim says “I wasn’t supposed to make it past about 14, and yet here I am at 54, a celebrity!”.

As a child, Kim was very introverted. It wasn’t until he was 37 when he met Dustin Hoffman, that he could look into someone’s face. Fran relates that “Dustin Hoffman said to me, you have to promise me one thing about this guy, share him with the world. And pretty soon it got so that nobody was a stranger to him, they were people, and so was he”. Barry Morrow, the Rain Man screenwriter says of Kim: “I love the way he’s flowered, it belies the myth that people don’t change, especially people with developmental disabilities”.

Rain Man
Kim Peek, Savant

Fran took Dustin Hoffman’s advice to share Kim with the world. The once introverted Kim has now appeared in front of more than 2 million people, all eager to test his genius with obscure questions.

Kim’s gifts come at a price. Like all savants, Kim is an acutely different man, sometimes understanding Kim can be a challenge. Kim can become very agitated when trying to understand a new concept, but Fran has phenomenal patience and will calm Kim by gently changing the subject to something Kim is happier with.

Looking after Kim is more than a full-time job, Fran jokes that he needs 30 hours a day and 10 days a week. Kim knows how essential his dad is to him: “My dad and I share the same shadow!”

This year is a landmark year for Fran and Kim, a fact that Kim is unusually aware of. He says “Things will really heat up this winter, with my dad approaching 80. Only one other member of my dad’s immediate family has ever reached that mark, it’s my Grandma, which makes this year so important to us”. So this year the Peek’s have set themselves a mission to find out everything they can about Kim’s brain. They are going to California to meet some of world’s foremost neuro-scientists to find some answers while they’re still together.

Most savants have only one dominating interest, Kim seems to soak up everything. His interests range from boxing, to politics, to the British Monarchy.

Dr. Darold Treffert is an authority on Savant Syndrome and consulted on the Rain Man movie. “About once a century comes along a truly stellar savant, an already rare condition, and Kim is in that category” explains Dr. Treffert. “Kim’s memory is not only deep, it is also very wide which is very unique among savants” he continues.

Dr. Elliot Sherr

What is it that makes Kim’s brain work in such an extraordinary way, and do his disabilities, in some way, enhance his memory? In California, Kim has been invited to take part in a study at the University of California.

Neurologist Dr. Elliott Sherr begins by going over Kim’s background. This is something of a sore point as the first neurologist Kim saw, when he was only a baby, took 5 minutes to dismiss him as a hopeless case who should institutionalised. Dr. Sherr was to discover that Kim had learned to read by the age of two. While this was not a formal neuropsychological assessment, it was plain that Kim had difficulty following directions.

Dr. Rita Jeremy

Psychologist Dr. Rita Jeremy gives him a standardised intelligence test to see where he stands in relation to the norm. She discovers that Kim has trouble with tasks that require new thinking and for which he can’t call upon facts from his memory. His results are wildly erratic but Dr. Jeremy is philosophical and decides that a standardised test cannot apply as Kim is most definitely not standard.

The following day, Neuroradiologist Dr. Pratik Mukherjee will use Diffusion Tensor Imaging, a ground-breaking way of mapping how the brain functions, to look inside Kim’s head. This reveals that the two halves of his brain are not joined in the normal manner, a condition known asĀ  agenesis of the Corpus Callosum.

Dr. Pratik Mukherjee

The fibres that should have made this connection are travelling in different, peculiar directions. Has the way Kim’s brain rewired itself to compensate for the missing Corpus Callosum account for his incredible memory?

Next, Professor V.S. Ramachandran wants to test a long-standing theory that savants are not capable of conceptual thinking. Professor Ramachandran and his students run a number of word association tests which appear to prove that Kim simply accepts words at face value without processing them in any way. He takes metaphors literally. All of which seems to back up the theory.

Kim Peek may be the greatest savant we have ever known, he is certainly the best known and more than entitled to be referred to as a mega-savant.

He can recall thousands of zip codes, phone codes, dates and countless facts and figures. He has a truly awesome memory. Is he autistic? Probably, but like Daniel Tammett, not in the conventional sense. He was originally diagnosed with autism but this was later changed.

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