Kim Peek: mega-savant, mega-human

Between 2002 and 2009 I worked with the late Kim Peek, the man on whom the title character of the movie Rain Man was based, the man who was the world’s only known and first-designated mega-savant, and the most extraordinary person I have ever encountered. If you had the good fortune to meet him (as many thousands of people did), I imagine you would make the same statement.

We are unaware of any other person at any time in history with cognitive abilities similar to Kim’s. My purpose here is to maintain an active archive that documents Kim’s remarkable knowledge of music, his ability to run countless compositions through the processor of his brain to find patterns and similarities among them, to perfectly recall apparently every aspect of a piece of music to which he had consciously listened, and to demonstrate his increasing, improving, developing abilities. His mind was expanding rapidly.

Kim could not button his shirt or brush his own teeth but, in 2002, I encouraged him to try to play the piano. By the end of the year, Kim was playing the piano with both hands functioning independently. Did he play as though trained as a concert pianist? No. Since his manual dexterity was, from birth, very limited, Kim struggled to control each finger individually and equally; sometimes he pressed a key with great force and sometimes his fingers would press a key so lightly that the hammer wouldn’t activate the strings. However, he knew exactly the pitches he wanted to produce and always played a given piece in its original or conventional key.

Kim would think of an orchestral piece or opera he liked and then discuss selected passages; he could instantly reduce a full orchestral score to its essential structure, which he played on the piano. He would reproduce on the keyboard timbral effects of a given composer’s orchestration; for example, if low strings played a rippling figure, he would reproduce the effect by playing the rippling pattern in the correct register and key. Moreover, while his left hand sustained a particular figure, he would play the melody assigned to, say, the woodwinds in a higher register with his right hand.

Unfortunately, Kim’s physical conditions were misdiagnosed throughout his life. When he was born, he was pronounced severely mentally retarded. Later the diagnosis was retracted and changed to autism and that accompanied by savant syndrome. The character of Raymond played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man was based on the idea that Kim was an autistic savant. That diagnosis, too, was changed.

One of the founders of clinical genetics, John M. Opitz, and Elisabeth G. Kaveggia, have suggested that Kim most likely had a very rare, genetic condition sometimes known as Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome and otherwise known as FG syndrome.

An animated gif of MRI images showing the head of a person with benign familial macrocephaly. This gif was created by Dwayne Reed.

 

Opitz and Kaveggio first described this  syndrome in 1974. Their report was published in Zeitschrift für Kinderheilkunde (the European Journal of Pediatrics) vol. 117, no. 1, pp. 1-18 and named for two of the patients they studied who demonstrated this syndrome. The conditions they associated with FG syndrome include an unusually large head (macrocephaly), an under-formed or entirely absent corpus callosum, very weak muscles (hypotonia), and particular facial characteristics. The condition is produced by abnormality of the inheritance of the X chromosome.

 

Kim passed away unexpectedly in December of 2009. In response to many requests from around the world to make available information about him, I’m publishing here details about my work with him and will include video footage not made public in the many documentaries made about Kim.

 

He is very dearly missed.

April-Greenan_Lawrence-Kim-Peek

The author, April Greenan, with Kim Peek.

 

Kim’s devoted father, Fran Peek, passed away in April 2014. 

Kim said they shared the same shadow.

2 thoughts on “Kim Peek: mega-savant, mega-human

  1. April, it was a real pleasure to meet you today and I already feel like I know you – I rushed to look at your web site and blog when I got home and am enjoying it. I look forward to working with you and Porcher on the proposed project that you both shared with me today, and to a program that you might do for the Osher students as your schedule permits. All best, Jane

  2. Is there still a possibility to watch Kim Peek playthe piano? Could you upload/reupload it?

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