Howe Response Sect 05-06

From: Rowe Anna (
Date: Mon Feb 23 1998 - 14:02:00 GMT

> We do not dispute Rutter's assertion that savants may exhibit
> isolated pockets of achievement that are well above population norms,
> having studied some of these people at first hand (e.g. Howe and Smith,
> 1988; Sloboda, Hermelin and O'Connor, 1985). We also accept that in the
> majority of cases such individuals cannot be formally instructed.
> Nonetheless they do learn, and lifespan evidence suggests that their
> skills do improve gradually with practice, just as the skills of
> ordinary individuals do. What very often contributes to making savants
> special is their special commitment, which may be involuntary and
> perhaps obsessive. This permits them to focus on one limited activity
> for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hours.

This is a fair comment, but how would you explain the 'talent' of the
autistic male in the film 'Rain Man'. Although it is a film, the
character must be true to life showing the same /similar
characteristics to real autistics and not completely exagerrating
their characteristics, so as not to cause public outcry. In this film,
Raymond the autistic guy had the ability to read a book, even skim it,
and remember everything about it. He could skim a phone book and
recall a random persons phone number automatically. How would you
explain this.

I do not think this is something a person can practise and become
exceptional at. I have also heard of a few ordinary individuals having
this ability, so I don't think it is the fact that autistics can pra
'focus on one limited activity for thousands, if not tens of thousands,
of hours' that produces this exceptional ability.

So in some circumstances practise is of no help, but in others perhaps
it is. For example practising playing the piano you can improve with
practise. But I still believe that yes practise does help, but if
these individuals didn't have an initial innate 'spark' to begin with ,
no amount of practise will ver lead them to be exceptional. For
example, practising at hockey, I played at school and I trained every
week, got better, but was never amazing, but a friend of mine who
started at the same time as me went on to play for the county. I think
that you can improve but even playing for tens of thousands of hours
you will only get to a certain ability ( Iknow, and it's frustrating!)
whereas a few people within the same time constraints, do go on and

> The reasons for that unusual degree of commitment to one particular
> kind of activity may differ from one individual to another, but it is
> likely that the inability to engage in conventional forms of cognition,
> such as ones based on language, contributes to attention being
> exclusively directed to a specific kind of alternative activity.

If this exceptional abilty was not innate and therefore due to practise
and social factors then wouldn't autistic individuals cognitive
abilities improve with practise? (I know little about autism). Also,
wouldn't ordinary individuals through practise be able to excel and be
fluent in ten or so languages, and therefiore wouldn't everybody be
talented. I therefore again argue that talent is biological and

> Winner points out that the areas in which savants excel are restricted.
> Not anything that an unusual commitment or obsession might latch onto
> is a fruitful field for savant development. Unfortunately we do not
> have the kind of exhaustive meta-study on savant skills that could
> clarify the position. Winner asserts that there are more piano savants
> than for other instruments. We agree, although we know of some savants
> who are competent on several instruments. (The popularity of the piano
> could reflect its relative availability, or some contextual feature.
> For example, the piano does not have to be taken out of a case or
> assembled before it can be played, and therefore it may make fewer
> demands than other instruments on activities that are not directly
> related to a savant's interests). Expertise at some disciplines may
> necessitate a level of conceptual sophistication that autistic savants
> are extremely unlikely to possess.

I agree that autistics may be limited to areas in which they excel
compared to ordinary individuals, but I disagree that it is due just to
contextual factors. Yes, they may be involved. Autistics may not be
exposed to the same environments as normal individuals so access to
practise in some domains may be limited, but I do still contend to the
biological/innate view and believe that is something deeper. I don't
quite know what though! I think the idea that excelling at the piano
is due to the fact that it doesn't have to be assembled and does not
have a case is a bit simplistic. Many autistics may have lived in a
house with a music room with violins not in their cases or drum kits
and clarinets already assembled.

> We appreciate Tesch-Roemer's concern that whilst we demolish the talent
> myth we do not propose alternative concepts that might serve precisely
> the same function. However, we are not at all convinced that an
> alternative universal cause exists. There are a large number of
> potentially influential factors, but they all exert their effects on a
> person's capabilities in ways that depend upon the particular
> circumstances, rather than providing straightforward substitutes for
> talents.

If there is no such thing as talent, then an alternative cause of
exceptional capabilities depends on the environments that an individual
has grown up in and been exposed to and the encouragement and pressure
he has had, and this will shape/determine how much and in what he will
excel, whereas talent would be there (innate/inside) in whatever
environment an individual is in but will only be shown if it is an
environment relevant to the talent allowing him to express it.

> We also agree with Hatano that concentrated and effective early
> training, even when combined with favourable early experiences, will
> not inevitably lead to exceptionally high achievements.

As I've said, practise may be important, but I think that innate
spark has got to be there for exceptional achievements to occur.

> New opportunities can create previously unrecorded capabilities, a fact
> that Irvine illuminates in his description of the recent emergence of
> the Shona sculptors in Zimbabwe. It is hardly possible that a sudden
> explosion of innate talents could be responsible for these new
> developments.

There may be better training and improved facilities etc that have led
to these unrecorded exceptions or is it something else?

> Similarly, substantial numbers of today's musicians reach standards of
> performance that in Mozart's time would have been rare, and regarded
> then as indicative of special talents. That is another kind of evidence
> pointing to the importance of opportunities and learning experiences,
> rather than innate gifts.

Is it learning experiences or is it perhaps naturel selection? (or am I
way off track!). These abilities may have been passed on and improved
on leading to these new high unrecorded capabilities.

> Lehmann's observations even raise the possibility that levels of
> performance in children that would have been regarded as indicative of
> the presence of an innate talent in previous generations might be seen
> as indicating a lack of talent in a child today.

Perhaps it is people's ideas of talent that have changed. What was
talent then, is the norm today. This should perhaps then still be
classed as talent.

> The importance of the quality and appropriateness of practising
> activities is stressed by Winner and Stevenson. As Ericsson observes,
> expert performance may require kinds of deliberate practising that is
> very different from the learning activities that are adequate for the
> acquisition of everyday skills. For example, whereas ordinary
> individuals may reach a stage at which they are happy for performance
> to become relatively automatic and effortless, the expert needs to
> continue being fully aware of skilled activities, in order to plan and
> monitor performance increasingly efficiently.

I think that talented and ordinary individuals both do improve with
practise but talented individuals will do so with much more ease. ie.
I think it is a naturel progression compared to ordinary individuals
who I think improve but with much frustration along the way. For
example, people who study maths try and try and often have to sit and
read formulae over and over working it out in their minds until they
understand, and even then may not be able to apply it to a new
situation even though they seem to understand the concept. They can be
good but not exceptional through practise. Talented mathematicians to
me, seem to grasp concepts straight away and apply them with ease and
progress naturally to new levels.

---------------------- Rowe Anna

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