Mind & Body

This "Megasavant" Remembered Everything He Ever Learned

If you thought Dustin Hoffman's fictional character in Rain Man was impressive (remember when he counted that pile of toothpicks?) then you need to hear about Kim Peek, the real-life "megasavant" who inspired the Academy Award-winning movie's title character.

The Kim-puter

When Kim Peek was a baby, doctors told his parents that he was severely mentally retarded, and may never be able to learn anything. Despite that diagnosis, Peek was reading entire encyclopedias by the age of four. Peek was known as a "megasavant," which meant he had an amazing memory and ability to learn. By age 10, he could read both pages of an open book at once, with one eye reading one page and the other eye reading the opposite page. He retained about 98% of everything he ever learned.

By the time of his death in 2009 at age 58, Peek —who was nicknamed "The Kim-puter"— had read 12,000 books, according to his obituary in the New York Times. His abilities may have been due to a lack of connection between his brain's two hemispheres. "He was missing the corpus callosum, the sheaf of nerve tissue that connects the brain's hemispheres. It has been theorized that this disruption of normal communication between the brain's left and right halves resulted in a kind of jury-rigged rewiring," the Times reported.

In Scientific American, two experts on savants explained the potential cause of Kim's abilities like this: "Perhaps the resulting structures allow the two hemispheres to function, in certain respects, as one giant hemisphere, putting normally separate functions under the same roof, as it were. If so, then Peek may owe some of his talents to this particular abnormality."

The Rain Man Effect

So how did inspiring an award-winning movie affect Peek? His newfound celebrity enabled him to be more outgoing, look people in the eye, and even do some public speaking, according to the New York Times. Peek claimed to have never looked anyone in the eye until "Rain Man" was released. "Though his social skills never fully developed, he grew to be outwardly engaging. He enjoyed being among people in his travels and became comfortable as something of a showman. He began developing mental skills he had never had before, like making puns; his coordination slowly improved, to the extent that he could play the piano. He became more self-aware, even displaying a certain social agility."

In their obituary of Peek, NPR reported that his memory in fact improved over time, and was strong until the day his heart gave out in 2009. "I think it'll be a long time before we have another Kim," Daniel Christensen, a scientist who studied Peek for 20 years told NPR. "I don't think there has been anyone like Kim in recorded history."

Watch and Learn: Our Favorite Videos About Savants

Meeting the Real Rain Man

He's incredibly impressive.

10 Savants With Real-Life Superpowers

Learn about more savants like Peek.

How to Actually Remember Someone's Name

Written by Joanie Faletto May 13, 2016

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