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See Inside June/July 2006

Inside the Mind of a Savant

Kim Peek--the inspiration for Rain Main--possesses one of the most extraordinary memories ever recorded. Until we can explain his abilities, we cannot pretend to understand human cognition

When J. Langdon Down first described savant syndrome in 1887, coining its name and noting its association with astounding powers of memory, he cited a patient who could recite Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire verbatim. Since then, in almost all cases, savant memory has been linked to a specific domain, such as music, art or mathematics. But phenomenal memory is itself the skill in a 54-year-old man named Kim Peek. His friends call him "Kim-puter."

He can, indeed, pull a fact from his mental library as fast as a search engine can mine the Internet. Peek began memorizing books at the age of 18 months, as they were read to him. He has learned 9,000 books by heart so far. He reads a page in eight to 10 seconds and places the memorized book upside down on the shelf to signify that it is now on his mental "hard drive."

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