Friday, November 6, 2015

A Psychic Savant?

Ramses Sanguino is a five year old California boy who is a genuine savant. Ramses is on the "high-functioning" end of the autism spectrum - or, in his case, the "superior-functioning" end. He's not neurotypical, he's better. Ramses has already been tested as one of the most intelligent five-year-olds in the world, is learning seven different languages, and can solve reasonably complex mathematical equations.

And according to Dr. Diane Powell, a neuroscientist who trained at Johns Hopkins university, he might even be telepathic. Ramses' mother posted videos of her son in which he seems to be able to guess numbers and playing cards that are out of sight with almost perfect accuracy. Powell has set up a research study to test the boy's abilities, and if they really can be replicated under controlled scientific conditions they will constitute a highly significant finding.

In Ramses's case, he has apparently been able to demonstrate a degree of telepathy with Dr Powell during three meetings. She used a random-number generator to pick numbers for Ms Sanguino to write down and think about, before asking Ramses to try and read his mother's mind to guess them. The little boy did this successfully in the meetings, she said.

Ms Sanguino, who works as an artist, says her son has sometimes been able to recite 38 numbers written out of sight. She vows there is no trickery involved in his 'talent', or her home videos. In another test with Dr Powell, Ramses was able to correctly guess 16 out of 17 numbers hidden out of sight - including one double digit number, according to his mother.

She said: 'I was amazed when we began testing Ramses. We do have a very close bond which may have something to do with his abilities - but this is beyond anything I would have imagined. However, Ms Sanguino's main concern is helping to find a specialist school for Ramses, whom Dr Powell has described as 'one of the smartest five year olds on the planet'.

So there are couple things that need to be ruled out here that I can think of right offhand. The first, which probably would show up in a close analysis of the video is the "clever Hans effect," which is named after a famous performing horse who appeared to be able to understand small numbers, count, and add. But careful testing showed that Hans was simply well-trained to spot his trainer's body language, which would subtly change once the right number was reached. Without the trainer present, the horse's ability vanished.

The second thing to check is that I want to know what "out of sight" means in this situation. Autistic savants often have an almost superhuman sense of space and shapes. Temple Grandin, a well-known writer on the subject who is on the autism spectrum herself, believes that this is because people on the spectrum think in images rather than words. So it's possible that even if Ramses could not see the numbers themselves, he might be able to identify a number being written by reading his mother's arm and hand motions if she is writing in the same room.

A third possibility is a trick like what one person allegedly used back in the 1930's to guess Zener cards in the original Rhine trials. With the way those trials were set up, it was possible to see the symbol on the card reflected in the sender's eye if you looked at it at just the right angle. In addition to their faculty with spatial relations, autistic savants also can be much more aware of such small details in their environments than a neurotypical person generally would be.

Now if all those can be ruled out, though, we might just have something. And if young Ramses really is as accurate as his mother claims, he might turn out to be the subject who finally validates the existence of psychic perception.

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