Could A Real-life Version of "Rain Man" Count 246 Toothpicks At A Glance

A Real Life Rainman

In the 1987 movie “Rain Man,” a waitress in a diner brings a box of toothpicks to the table and accidentally spills them on the floor. Raymond Babbit, a savant played by Dustin Hoffman, studies them on the floor and instantly calculates the number: “246 toothpicks.”
Dustin Hoffman (L) as Rain Man, inspired by Kim Peeks (R) 

His cocksure, manipulative brother Charlie (played by Tom Cruise) asks the waitress how many toothpicks the box holds. When she tells him 250, Charlie—skeptical of his brother's quirky certainty—says a bit triumphantly, “Pretty close, Ray.”

But as he walks away, the waitress calls after him, “There's four left in the box.” [Psychiatric News, March 5, 2010].

Is such a feat within the capacity of the human mind? The Rain Man scene is fictitious but was inspired by a real-life person, Kim Peek, a savant with unimaginable mental abilities despite his measured IQ of 87. The ability to know the numerical quantity of a collection of objects without counting them is called subitizing. Most humans do not need to count 4 objects on display, they instantly know the quantity at a glance. Beyond 4 objects, the frequency of errors increases rapidly. Humans solved this deficiency by enumerating (counting) which has no limit but requires time and attention roughly proportionate to the number of objects.

Subitizing is not confined to humans. For example, bees don't enumerate but do subitize quantities up to 3 or 4 as demonstrated by navigating a simple maze by following the one unique path marked by the same number of objects as that posted at the entrance of the maze (article).

Some savants are able to spontaneously estimate the number of objects in a large group but even Kim Peek could not reliably estimate 246 toothpicks scattered on the floor. Autistic savant twins, John and Michael" saw a box of matches spill on the floor and simultaneously said "one hundred eleven" followed by "thirty-seven". When the matches were counted, there were exactly 111 scattered about (I suspect this event inspired the toothpick scene in Rain Man). When asked about 37, they smiled and said in unison "37, 37, 37, 111". They "saw" that 111 could be factored into three groups of 37.

The ability to factor numbers was even more evident in a game they were observed playing as adults. One day the twins were taking turns calling out numbers and smiling. "All the numbers, the six-figure numbers, which the twins had exchanged, were primes - i.e., numbers that could be evenly divided by no other whole number than itself or one. Had they somehow seen or possessed such a book as mine - or were they, in some unimaginable way, themselves 'seeing' primes, in somewhat the same way as they had 'seen' 111-ness or triple 37-ness? Certainly, they could not be calculating them - they could calculate nothing." (excerpt from Chapter 23 of Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat). 

The twins were finding very large prime numbers without the aid of books or calculating devices. The game the twins were playing escalated to 12 digit numbers. There is no known way to find prime numbers using any simple mental rule.

One hypothesis is that the twins (and other savants) naturally access lower level unprocessed information in the brain. That is, they are directly aware of details without being encumbered by the higher-level assembly of information into meaningful patterns and recognizable memories. In the case of the twins, the number 111 might have been immediately "seen" and then automatically decomposed into its factors (37). A non-savant would have immediately engaged higher-level mental processing that would visually separate the matches into groups of, say 5, to eventually arrive at 111 by counting the recognizable clusters of 5 and adding the remainder 1. In essence, savants may bypass the time consuming and energy-demanding process of looking for patterns that are consistent with their past experiences. This hypothesis is consistent with studies of brain injuries that induce savant-like characteristics in previously normal persons.

Postscript on Kim Peek

Kim Peek, unlike the twins, was not autistic. In general, not all autistic people are savants and savants are not all autistic. Most (but not all) individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have similar characteristics: difficulty with social interactions, obsessive repetitive behaviors, language impairment, and hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli. 

Kim lacked most of these traits. Kim's unique mental abilities were attributed to the lack of a corpus callosum, the part of the brain that transmits information between its right and left hemispheres. This explains how Kim was able to read two pages simultaneously, one with his right eye and one with his left eye.

Kim was intimately familiar with musical compositions and Shakespeare's plays. "He had memorized so many Shakespearean plays and musical compositions and was such a stickler for accuracy, his father said, that they had to stop attending performances because he would stand up and correct the actors or the musicians. He'd stand up and say: 'Wait a minute! The trombone is two notes off,' ..." A fascinating article about Kim's abilities can be found here; a summary is posted below.

  • Not only could he read at 18 months of age, but he could also read two pages at once; one with his left eye and the other with his right eye. He retained this ability for life retaining 98% of the contents of over 12,000 books. 
  • He memorized maps and encyclopedias. He could give driving directions within and between all major cities in the United States. 
  • He memorized all zip codes and area codes in the United States and could recite which were served by what television stations. 
  • He could identify most classical music compositions and knew the date the music was written and could recite details about the composer's life. He had equally detailed knowledge in a long list of other areas such as history, sports, literature, movies, etc. 

California Wants Year Round Daylight Saving Time, So Do I: Here's Why.

Year-Round Daylight Saving Time?

Image result for barbecuingAs most of the United States set clocks back one hour today the news media repeats the biannual controversy about fiddling with time twice a year. In the interest of disclosing my bias, I would love to leave my clocks on DST year-round. This bias partly reflects my longitudinal position on the map; Del Mar, CA is much farther east than most people realize. We are east of Reno Nevada, for example. Setting our clocks back one hour means the sun will set at 4:47PM on the shortest day of this year. I would much rather see it set at 5:47PM. The extra hour of evening daylight would make a winter afternoon Barbecue more feasible (it is not uncommon for us to use air conditioning when the winds blow across the eastern desert towards the ocean in December).

This started me musing about who might benefit and who might not if we were to stop fiddling with clocks and just leave DST in place each winter.

DST moves one hour of daylight from the morning to the evening. Nearly 75% of Americans share my bias and would like to keep DST year-round. The predominant reason for that preference is the same as mine; one can do more in the evenings during the winter after a day at work or school. A second reason people want to stop changing clocks is that it is inconvenient and confusing. Livestock farmers, in particular, are inconvenienced because their animals lay eggs or expect to be milked on nature's time, not human time, yet farmers often are obliged to meet delivery and transportation schedules in clock time. In my case, the dog awakens me for his morning walk an hour earlier than when our park
opens. He of course will adjust within a few days.

Most of the arguments to stop changing our clocks twice a year highlight either confusion and inconvenience, or detrimental effects of losing evening daylight when we switch from DST to standard time (ST).

Of course, clocks are not to blame. The effects of the clock changes in our daily lives are entirely due to the sudden realignment of nature's light cycle with our scheduled human activities. Here are some effects of the realignment.

If DST were in place year-round, less energy would be used in the evening because, with more evening daylight, people at home use less lighting and appliances before retiring to sleep. But this would be somewhat offset by more people beginning their day in the dark. The net effect is however less energy consumed overall although the effect would vary by location. For example, locations with greater temperature extremes use more heating and cooling appliances than locations in moderate climates; these appliances consume more energy than lighting, cooking, and watching TV. Most studies show so little effect overall that we can largely ignore effects on energy consumption.

Effects on our health and safety are harder to ignore. Health effects occur mostly in the spring when DST steals an hour of sleep. There likely are more strokes and heart attacks in the days following the start of DST but most studies are criticized for not included all relevant variables. There is stronger evidence that work-related and auto accidents increase when we lose the hour of sleep in the spring and are not entirely offset by the extra hour of sleep we get in the winter. Crime has been shown to increase when the hours of darkness are extended into the afternoon and there is some increase in depression likely due to spending more time in darkness following the return to standard time. While these affect a small percentage of people, the time change affects nearly the whole nation and the numbers add up.

Thus far, it appears that we and the farmers' livestock would be better off leaving our clocks alone and continue to act in alignment with nature's light cycle.

However, being mindful of the biases discussed in my last blog, I asked myself if I were falling into the trap of "confirmation bias".  Am I searching for arguments that support my preference to keep DST year-round?

There are a few reasons not to impose DST year-round. The first is a legal reason. The U.S. Uniform Time Act of 1966 allows states only two options: change clocks twice a year or impose only standard time -- year-round DST is not a legal option. Last year the California Legislature passed a bipartisan resolution asking Congress to approve a third option for states — permanent daylight saving time. To date, Congress has not approved that request and year-round standard time is not an option that California voters would ever accept. The afternoon light is too ingrained in the California culture to consider a change.

Related imageThere is a safety issue as well: during the Nixon administration, the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Conservation Act put the United States on Daylight Saving Time for the fifteen-month period between January 1974 and April 1975. One reason it was repealed was because of an increased number of school bus accidents in the morning darkness (recall that DST moves an hour of sunlight from morning to evening).

And there is a negative impact on some businesses. Nielsen TV ratings found that immediately following the change to DST, TV audiences fell by 10% to 15% even for the most popular shows (yep, my Bar-B-Que is to blame but my DVR has me covered). Offsetting this, some businesses benefit. A study by Hardee’s fast-food chain estimated that extending DST would increase sales by $880 a week per store.

Considering all the pros and cons, I believe our nation would be better off dropping the change from DST to standard time. At the very least, congress, please let California have the option. Maybe I will be lucky enough to get my winter Barbecue before I die.