Why did the absence of the corpus callosum in Kim Peek’s brain increase his memory capacity?
—A. Goze, via e-mail
Jeannine Stamatakis, instructor at Ohlone College and other colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, responds: I met Kim Peek when he gave a presentation at Ohlone College in October 2009, just a few weeks before his passing. During the talk, Peek astonished my students by showcasing his remarkable talent for calendar calculations. Just from knowing my students’ birth dates, Peek was able to determine the day of the week they were born and could recall the front-page news that day.
Known as a mega savant or a “Kimputer,” Peek had one of the most impressive memories people have ever seen. Physicians who examined Peek discovered that he had damage to the cerebellum, a brain region that regulates attention and language, as well as emotional reactions, such as pleasure and fear.
Perhaps most notably, physicians found that Peek had no corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the brain’s right and left hemispheres. They speculated that the absence of this critical structure allowed Peek’s neurons to make new and unusual connections between his right and left hemispheres. These novel connections most likely explain his abnormal memory capacity.
According to Peek’s father, Peek could memorize every word in the books they read before he was two years old. Peek progressed to reading two pages simultaneously. Although how he did so remains a mystery, some have theorized he read the left page of a book with his left eye and the right page with his right eye.
Peek could soak up material in any subject and became an expert in history, sports trivia, geography and music. He memorized zip codes, area codes and phone books. He could tell if a musician was “off” by a few notes in an orchestra setting—and would even call them on it.
Peek’s unique abilities inspired the character Raymond Babbitt, played by Dustin Hoffman, in the 1988 movie Rain Man. To accurately portray Peek, Hoffman met him and other savants; however, unlike Peek, Babbitt was portrayed as having autism.