Event-Related Brain Potentials

Darold Treffert MD

Dr. Niels Birbaumer, of the Institute of Behavioral Neurobiology, in Tubingen, Germany has been studying what he calls “event-related brain potentials” (ERPs). With those he measures early components (up to about 100ms) of brain activity which reflect initial, “preconscious” stages of mental processing-fast, low-level elementary mental operations. Later measurements of ERPs reflect higher level mental processing such as the so-called “executive” functions of the brain that dominate normal information processing.

In an article in Nature, May 20, 1999 Dr. Birbaumer has written an article entitled “Rain Man’s Revelations.” In it he comments on Snyder and Mitchell’s views on the possibility of savant abilities residing in non-disabled persons as put forth in their article in the March 22, 1999 Proceedings of the Royal Society issue entitled “Is Integer arithmetic fundamental to mental processing: the mind’s secret arithmetic” (Dr. Snyder’s use of transcranial magnetic stimulation-rTMS — a device he calls a “thinking cap,” to tap our “inner savant” is described in more detail in Discover Magazine, February, 2002)

Dr. Birbaumer has been comparing ERPs of a “human calculator” — a non-autistic arithmetic whiz — to same age, same intelligence healthy controls. While the “human calculator” has the same stages of information processing as the slower control subjects, amplitudes of ERPs of the calculating whiz are increased early on “indicating enhanced automatic low-level processing.” Birbaumer is attempting now to see whether this particular type of early, lower-level processing in non-savant geniuses, is the same as, or different from, similar early level, more primitive processing that Snyder and Mitchell believe autistic savants automatically use, but has been buried — but still exists — in the rest of us by our “graduation” to higher level executive functioning. And if that be true, how can that be accessed?

That debate continues. But the significance of Birbaumer’s work is that first of all he has discovered ERPs as another way to measure brain function. Further, he has found that healthy controls and neurological patients can, with use of a computer screen to observe his or her own changes in slow brain potentials, and modify such brain potentials with training. He writes: “After many training sessions, brain-damaged patients and healthy controls can learn to control their own brain activity — which we normally cannot consciously perceive — and become sensitive to the changes that underlie the elementary, low-level processing. By bringing their brain activity under voluntary control, these patients can use it to communicate from the mysterious early state of non-consciousness. The result may ultimately be that we find we all possess behavioural and physiological strategies to modify the early stages of cortical processing, with unprecedented consequences for behaviour and self-awareness.”

Is there an inner savant within us all? And if so, how do we access that? rTMS, or brain “exercises” perhaps? Or by some other methods or devices still undiscovered?

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