The Creativity Debate

Talent or Practice – What Matters More?

A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.

Talent or Practice, or Both? The Returns Are In

Darold Treffert

Darold A. Treffert, M.D. is a psychiatrist who has been intrigued with, and studying, savant syndrome since he met his first savant in 1962 when developing a Children’s Unit at a psychiatric hospital in Wisconsin. Convinced that savant syndrome provides a unique window into both the brain and human potential, he has written widely in professional and lay publications and participated in numerous documentaries world-wide on the topic.  He also maintains an internationally respected and popular website at  “Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant” is his most recent book on this remarkable condition.  He also maintains a
savant syndrome registry with 350+ individuals world-wide, and growing.  Dr. Treffert is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, Wisconsin.

If ever there was an irrefutable argument for the existence, and importance, of “innate talent” it is the prodigious savant. Case after case of prodigious savants—persons with disabilities but whose skill, but for the disability, would otherwise be classified as prodigy or genius—demonstrate that these remarkable persons clearly “know (or remember) things they never learned”. They accomplish that by genetic memory—the genetic transmission of knowledge. 

Leslie Lemke is blind and cognitively impaired with a measured IQ of 58. Of course he cannot read music; he is blind. He has never had a music lesson in his life yet professional musicians who have known him acknowledge he innately knows the ‘rules of music’ that they have spent their lifetime trying to master. At age 14, with no formal training whatsoever, Leslie played back Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 flawlessly after hearing for the first time as the theme song to a Sunday night movie on television (Sincerely Yours). That same capacity has been demonstrated in other prodigious savants dating back to “Blind Tom”—Thomas Bethune—a marvelous musician whose talent was recognized worldwide in the mid 1800’s.

IQ of 58? I have a video clip of Leslie playing a piece he has never heard WITH someone instead of AFTER they play a piece which is more typical  He waits three seconds after the other pianist starts playing.  He absorbs what he is hearing, processes it, and outputs it immediately. That is parallel processing comparable to that rarely done by simultaneous translators. At the end of the piece he is only 1.5 seconds behind.

But what about the practice effect in prodigious savants. At first I thought their capacity to recall was spectacular in itself, but that they functioned like a human tape recorder or human digital camera without creativity. I was wrong. Now that I have followed a number of such incredible persons long enough I see the effect of what I call “training the talent”.    After a time—whether musician or artist—they become bored with ‘mere’ repetition and begin to improvise. Finally, after a time, improvisation morphs to creativity.   I have seen movement along that spectrum in person after person and have the video tapes (or paintings or compositions) to prove it.

So for me the returns are it.  With the prodigious savant, like with all prodigy or genius, it begins with bedrock, innate, inherited talent. Since that innate talent is distributed genetically along the usual bell-shaped curve we don’t all begin as prodigy or genius. Once surfaced—and in prodigious savants it often explodes on the scene—‘training the talent’, or practice can move that innate genius along to improvisation, and finally, creation of new art, music or even astounding insights into mathematics.

Thus, for savants or neurotypicals, it is not either/or inborn talent or intense practice that creates ‘genius’. It is instead both/and innate talent and relentless practice. In my view, however, without the innate talent, genetically endowed, practice alone, however relentless and driven, is not sufficient to produce true genius.

Thank goodness for innate talent. For more information about genetic memory visit or check out the chapter on “Genetic Memory: How do we know things we never learned” in my book Islands of Genius: the Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant.

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