Kim Peek, the man who inspired Rain Man, gives us an opportunity to glimpse the almost unimaginable possibilities of the human mind. This simple, compassionate man, brought up and cared for practically his whole life by his devoted father, makes the term ‘human computer’ seem totally inadequate.In his lifetime, it’s estimated, he read somewhere in the region of 12,000 books, and he was able to retain and recall most of the contents, and in great detail. He had the astonishing ability to read a book in about half an hour, scanning two pages at a time, the left eye reading the left page, the right eye the right page – simultaneously – in about 10 seconds. What’s more amazing, the level of his retention was estimated to be about 98%.
Kim Peek was born with a brain abnormality. He suffered from macrocephaly (an enlarged cranium) and agenesis of the corpus callosum, a rare defect in which the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain is missing. There is some speculation that, in the absence of the corpus callosum, his brain cells might have made other, different, and wildly unusual connections, and that this might account for his incredible memory. But the truth is that, even now, no-one quite knows what made him so special.
Although he had amazing mental abilities, he was unable to cope with some simple tasks, such as dressing himself without his father’s help. The lack of motor skills meant that coping with buttons, for example, was virtually impossible for him, and he moved around with a shuffling, sidelong gait. But he probably wasn’t autistic, as it turned out, since in later life he was able to cope with sizeable social gatherings, and was even able to appear in public in front of large audiences.
But a savant he certainly was – or should that be mega-savant, since his prodigious memory allowed him to become expert in several different fields, including history, sports, geography, music and literature. Not only that, but he was getting smarter in his areas of expertise as he got older, according to Richard D. Boyle, director of the Center in California where he underwent MRI brain scans.
Kim Peek, the real Rain Man
After a chance meeting with Kim Peek, Barry Morrow, a screenwriter, astonished that such a person could exist, decided to write a story about an autistic savant who was ‘rediscovered’ by his brother. This became Rain Man, for which he was awarded an Oscar. He felt he owed so much to Kim that he gave him the Oscar, which he carried with him the rest of his life.
It is said that it is the most hugged Oscar of them all, since he was always keen to share it with people at the public gatherings he attended later in his life, as a direct result of the film. The film was actually instrumental in educating the general public about autism and savantism, although there are still misconceptions (such as that all autistic people are savants – that’s just not the case).
The Mount Everest of memory
Dr. Darold A. Treffert, an expert on savantism, commented in an interview, “He [Kim Peek] was the Mount Everest of memory”. A bold claim, but the facts speak for themselves; he could answer questions on many subjects, and give full and detailed answers, revealing a truly gargantuan memory. And it wasn’t just the history and geography questions, for which he could have memorised lists of data – he memorised Shakespeare’s plays (verbatim), and musical compositions (note for note), local history and traffic details, even down to the trivial and (dare I say it) instantly forgettable. If someone gave him his address he’d immediately be able to tell them the names of the people who live next door! And in later life, he could even play music on the piano (from memory, naturally!), although not with any great musical flair.
Right up to the time of his death, he was consuming about eight books a day. I say ‘consuming’ because he practically ate them up, skimming through them so fast it seemed impossible he was really reading them at all. And yet the facts speak for themselves – he did indeed understand, retain, and could recall virtually everything he read, whether it was great literature, a map of an area, or a local train timetable.
A lesson for us all
While we cannot approach Kim Peek’s abilities, since his brain was quite simply different from the norm, we can certainly learn from him. We can learn that there can actually be a joy in simply acquiring information for its own sake. This is something we knew instinctively as children, but as we grew up, learning became a chore, something that we were ‘encouraged’ to do.
The whole of the modern educational setup is geared so that enjoying learning is no longer really a major concern. It’s far more important these days to meet government targets, to pass tests, to fulfil certain criteria, to ‘tick the boxes’. The original purpose of learning is, to a large extent, forgotten now, or simply ignored.
Who do you know who still studies purely for the sake of it? Who do you know (apart from students) who is learning a language, or studying Renaissance art, or delving into the root causes of the First World War purely to satisfy the hunger for knowledge? Wouldn’t it be something if we could rediscover the simple joy of learning for its own sake, the joy that motivated Kim Peek to read and study and memorise information his entire life?
Sadly, Kim Peek died of a heart attack at home on 21 December 2009.
Kim’s devoted father, Fran, toured the world with him, taking their inspirational story of overcoming seemingly insurmountable disabilities to more than two million people.
“You don’t have to be handicapped to be different. Everybody is different,” Kim would tell his audiences. And although he could barely look you straight in the eye when he said it, you just knew he meant every word.