Sunday, May 11, 2008

Meeting with Kim Peek

I had only the faintest idea, if any, what Salt Lake City was actually like. Naturally I remembered some fragmentary scenes from the 2002 winter Olympics. Beyond that, except for the faint connotation of the Mormon church and the self-evident indication of the existence of a "salt lake", most probably large, I did not have any premonitions of what to expect.

On 25th May 2008, I traveled from Tokyo to Salt Lake City, Utah, via San Francisco. As the airplane descended to make the final approach to the airport, I witnessed the vast expansion of water underneath. The geological variations manifested by the surrounding areas were fascinating to watch. I could see how the water, which presumably contained a high concentration of salt, merged itself with the land in an interesting gradation of colors. I looked on, and figured out that the tints and shades represented different conditions in the area such as shallow water, mud, or dry and flat earth. And these lands would of course be salty. Just like us organic life-forms, the mother earth itself was rich and heterogeneous, I thought, while my cheek was pushed against the airplane window.

It was already late afternoon when I found myself at the curb of the airport exit. As the car was driven towards the downtown, the most impressive element which entered my experience was the vision of mountains surrounding the plain which embraces the salt lake city area. The air was serene and cool, and I was already in a process of transfiguration from the busy streets of Tokyo, my native town.

The nightfall came soon enough. I went to the steak restaurant (Spencer's for Steaks and Chops) in the Hilton hotel. The waiter was friendly, and explained that they were famous for the quality of beefsteaks, notably the "cowboy cut", which he recommended. Why not, I said. Then he asked what brought me all the way to Salt Lake City. "I came to meet with Kim Peek", I said. "Do you know him, the renowned savant who inspired Barry Morrow to write the script for the movie Rain Man?" "Of course", the waiter answered. "Actually, Kim Peek comes to this restaurant from time to time with his father." "Oh, does he bring the Oscar with him?" "Yes", he said. "I hope you will have a good time with him!".

I really enjoyed the "cowboy cut" that the waiter brought to me. It seemed like a good omen. I was with the film crew of the Fuji television, one of the most popular key stations in Japan based in Tokyo. We were to make a program about Kim Peek and other notable savants of the contemporary time (Stephen Wiltshire of U.K. and David Helfgott of Australia). I was to meet with Kim Peek and Fran Peek, his father, and the crew was to film the event.

As a scientist, I hoped that I would be able to take a glimpse of what lies beyond the mind of this "stellar savant". My expectations were high. I had the intuition that meeting with Kim Peek would enrich me in domains not possible to be verbally expressed or documented easily in a scientific paper, and lead me to newly found venues of investigation, both intellectually and emotionally.

From the materials I studied beforehand I learned that Kim was 16 months old when Fran took him to be examined by a neurologist. The cold-hearted and (with the benefit of hindsight) careless verdict was to put Kim in an institution, and forget about him altogether. Fran did not comply with the advice. Fran took care of Kim, almost single-handedly, loved him, and encouraged him to develop his own unique talents. The result is one of the most remarkable brains known in human history. Uniqueness is probably a given, but it takes (an unconditional) love to nurture it.

The next day was spent preparing for the meeting and shooting some background scenes. We drove to the copper mining site, where they have dug a very large hole in search of valuable metals. We then went down to the shores of the salt lake, which actually looked like an ocean. Legend has it that the Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young, upon arriving at the lake shore, thought that they have reached the pacific ocean and decided to settle down. (It is one of the blessings of the land of America that you are close to untouched nature no matter where you are.)

In the evening we came back to downtown again. The film crew thought it would be a good idea for me to ride on the horse drawn carriage. I sat next to the lady who held the reins. When the lady asked me what bought me to Salt Lake City, I mentioned the name of Kim Peek. Her face brightened instantly. "Oh, I know him!" she said. "Kim Peek once came to my daughter's school to give a talk. He came with his father. After the talk, we chatted for a while". "Did he bring the Oscar?" "Sure he did. He was a very interesting person."

Thus, people in the City seemed to know Kim Peek well. I could feel that the footprints of Kim Peek was everywhere in Salt Lake City. It was as if the encountering process had already begun even before the great day dawned on me.

Finally, the day came. It was early morning, and we started in the direction of Kim's house. I was told beforehand that he was living in a nice neighborhood. The sky was clear, and refreshing air was blowing against my face through the open window. The car meandered off a busy street and eventually found itself parked amidst the tranquility of suburban greens.

The crew told me which house I should walk to. I took to the path, approached the designated address, and knocked on the door. Almost immediately I heard a faint sound from inside. Some moments later, a gentleman was looking out of the door, which I recognized as Fran Peek. "Hello" I said. "Hello" Fran said. Then Fran called in a gentle voice to somebody inside the house.

A few seconds passed, and I could hear the footsteps of another person from within. There appeared Kim Peek himself. I was not sure what to expect from our very first encounter. There was no hesitation on the part of Kim, however. He walked straight up to me, grabbed my shoulders, and held my body very closely to his. Then he moved his face close to mine, and said in a whispering voice. "You have made yourself a great man. People admire you for what you have done in your own field."

That was the very first sentence that Kim spoke. I was to listen to remarks of essentially the same nature from Kim in the following hours on that day that we spent together, either directed to me or others in the crew. Holding somebody very close to himself and whispering assuring remarks was clearly Kim's favorite way of greeting people. I was to appreciate the profound social significance of Kim's mannerisms.

We took some time to look at the living room, which was under refurbishment at the time of our visit. There were several interesting items. One of them was a large trophy, which, Fran explained to us, was for an award only two persons received thus far, namely and Kim Peek and Christopher Reeves, for overcoming one's difficulties. There was also a drawing of Kim Peek done by one of the famous savant artists living in the United States.

It was time to go outside. I walked slowly admiring the beautiful day alongside Fran and Kim towards an open green field nearby. We found a bench and sat. The sun sprinkled the beam over us. Soon the conversation started. Or rather, time passed by as Kim spontaneously spoke of various themes that came to his mind, with Fran helping us by adding explanatory remarks to what Kim said.

It was fascinating to witness the dynamo behind Kim's mind. Kim seemed to make associations almost at random, or it so seemed to an innocent onlooker. However, it gradually became evident to me that there was a solid structure of association behind what Kim had to say, whether it was about current affairs, some people that Kim and Fran used to know, or detailed facts of history ranging from British monarchy, baseball, and the great wars.

During our conversation, Kim did not sit still. He would stand up out of the blue and would walk around, endlessly muttering to himself. Kim would occasionally come up to me, would push my arms in a guiding manner downwards so that they would hang straight. Then he would hold my upper arms tight with his hands and whisper the ego-reassuring words again.

Fran was Kim's careful and caring partner. Fran would gently say "Kim, why don't you come back to the bench so that they can film while you are talking to Ken." Kim would follow his father's words, but would start walking around again in a few minutes.

It was a revelation to me that Kim's awesome memory power was not limited to the "public domain", in which people can verify the accuracy of Kim's memory by independent means. Kim's intellectual energy did not make a distinction between those knowledge pertaining to personal matters from those belonging to the wider world. Kim would make remarks about people who were living nearby, who have moved, married, died, had memorable incidents, or said something interesting to Kim and Fran.

"Wasn't it so, dad?" "Didn't he, dad?" "Didn't they, dad?" Kim would ask Fran after saying something about the past,
and Fran would say "yes", nodding in a very assuring manner. "You see, Kim would never say anything he doesn't actually know" Fran said, during one of these occasions when Kim stood up and wandered away from the bench, where Fran and I were sitting. "He would never tell a lie. Everything he says is true. There are times when what he says is so complicated and detailed that I do not know what he is talking about. On other times it is difficult to follow the associations that he makes. However, when it is possible to verify what he says, it becomes clear that Kim is 100 percent correct."

The film crew wanted to have a solid evidence of Kim's extraordinary abilities in a manner that viewers in Japan could understand. Accordingly, I mentioned my birth date, 20th October 1962. Literally without a delay, Kim said "Saturday". It was true. Then I read out the birth dates of some of the people who would appear on the program when the shot film is edited and broadcast. Kim correctly answered the days of the week for all of them, each time without any noticeable interval between my questioning and his answer.

It is known that Kim is born with a uniquely configured brain. He lacks the corpus callosum entirely, so that his left and right brains are more or less "independent" from each other, without the usual flow of information which binds the two hemispheres together in normal subjects. Although it is not the case that the agenesis of corpus callosum always results in a prodigious memory, it is certainly the case that Kim's special abilities developed under this special condition. The story of Kim's life is a manifestation of the value of neurodiversity, a philosophy which would endow the individualities of various brain conditions special and unique values free from the monotonous and often discriminatory systems of evaluation such as I.Q.

Even with a prior knowledge of Kim's condition, the demonstration of his unique abilities were so astonishing that it shook the very foundations of my belief system of what constitutes a human being. The sense of awe that we feel in the presence of a person like Kim derives itself from our admiration of a higher intelligence. The universe is constructed in such a wonderful manner that the numerical bookkeeping is conducted at a level of depth and detail unimaginable for a mortal human, no matter how gifted he or she may be within the scale of the human race. No matter whether one believes in God (traditional or unconventional), or is an atheist or an agnostic, if one is blessed with a power of reason to comprehend the makeup of the universe as modern science has revealed and continues to clarify, one cannot avoid being awe-struck at the magnificence of the design of the universe, whoever might have been responsible for its genesis. The manifestation of a super intelligence clearly has a divine connotation for us. When one witnesses a person like Kim Peek, a feeling of reverence surges from within.

After having a quite interesting conversation on the bench for a few hours, we drove to Kim and Fran's favorite restaurant nearby, Anna's Cafe. There we had an intimate time. It was heartwarming to see how Fran helped with cutting the food into small pieces so that Kim could easily eat them. The condition of agenesis of the corpus callosum resulted in Kim being unable to conduct basic motor tasks necessary in everyday life. As a consequence, Fran has to help Kim with most of his daily chores, brushing his teeth, taking the shower, undress and dress, etc. The flowering of Kim's special talent was not possible without Fran's devotion and affection.

Fran brought the Oscar to Anna's cafe. When a waitress or a customer approached, Fran would ask quite friendlily "Have you ever held an Oscar?" People would invariably say "No", and were delighted to hold the evidence of Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay presented to Barry Morrow. Barry kindly gave the Oscar to Kim to take it around and show to people. Consequently, it has since become the Oscar held by the most number of people.

The Oscar is an ice-breaker, as well as an instantly effective explanation of Kim's uniqueness. The film Rain Man made the life easier for Kim and for many people with savant syndrome, as people from the street came to know the existence of such uniquely gifted individuals as depicted so wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman in that film.

It was moving to observe how demonstrating such feats as telling the day of the week of a person's birth date has become a mode of communication for Kim Peek. Many people with savant abilities are also autistic, although savants are not limited to people with autism. Kim Peek does not belong to the autistic spectrum by diagnosis, and is quite sociable and eager to associate with people. However, Kim apparently has a difficulty in understanding other people's mind, making communication in a conventional manner awkward.

It was a great discovery on the part of Kim that he could make people pleasantly surprised and engaged by displaying his memory power. With the unfailing support of Fran, it was now possible for Kim to establish a mutually rewarding relationship with other people, even when they were perfect strangers.

The fact that Kim was able to compensate for his difficulties in reading other people's mind with his tremendous memory power, often associated with the very failure of cognitive abilities related to the so called theory of mind, set me thinking a lot, and for a long time. What an ingenious way to get around one's inabilities! Kim's almost compulsive manner of greeting, namely the tight grasping of both arms and the whispering of assuring words at a very close distance, also seemed to be an effort to overcome communication difficulties. Kim would like to associate with people somehow, although not in a manner conventionally accepted by the society. Savant-like memory is not usually classified as a manifestation of social abilities. It is rather considered to be an antithesis of of what is social. The "double roles" played by Kim's savant abilities in the context of social relationships are both humanely moving and intellectually revealing. And Kim's life story keeps going in interesting directions, a continued journey in a world yet unknown to humans.

Leaving Anna's cafe, we headed for the Salt Lake City public library, where Kim would spend hours reading books. It is said that Kim is able to read two separate pages with his left and right eye at the same time, remembering virtually everything written therein. A Scientific American article ("Inside the mind of a savant") published in 2005 reports Kim's tremendous ability thus: "Kim began memorizing books at the age of 18 months, as they were read to him. He has learned 9,000 books by heart so far. He reads a page in eight to 10 seconds and places the memorized book upside down on the shelf to signify that it is now on his mental hard drive."

As soon as we arrived at the library, Kim disappeared with one of the crews. After a while, Kim came back. We went up to the fourth floor with him. Once out of the lift, Kim started to walk through the shelf, appearing as if he was looking for something interesting.

It became eventually apparent, however, that Kim had a clear mind of what he wanted to show us from the beginning all along. Kim took us to where the phonebooks were. Kim mentioned a relative's name, who married with somebody several years ago. Kim apparently wanted to confirm the address of the aforementioned relative. He went straight to a location in the bookshelf, and, taking a particular phonebook, opened a specific page straight away, without any signs of hesitation, behaving in every respect as if he knew the wanted information was on that particular page.

That was the last manifestation of Kim's incredible ability on that day. By that time, I was accustomed to Kim's idiosyncratic modes of behavior. I was not surprised when Kim continued to come up to me and hold my arms tight, whispering the same sort of magic words of assurance, looking into my eyes from very close, occasionally bursting with breath, always friendly, constantly in motion, driven by an invisible dynamo from within.

I could see that taking care of Kim was a very tough job for Fran. Fran's unfailing support for all those years is a wonderful story of love and understanding. I could appreciate, although only partially, one of the reasons why Fran had been able to go through all these hardships. Kim had such a charming personality. It could be even said that one was addicted to Kim's manners. Kim's countenance would suddenly change without any warning, expressing an apparent agitation within. The volcanic eruptions of awesome memory power, the dynamic movements of body, the willingness to share his talents with the passers by, the gleam in his eyes, the whispered reassurances, empathy, all these things together made "the Kim Peek experience" deeply rewarding and transforming.

It was finally the time to say good bye to Kim and Fran, two extraordinary individuals I learned to like, respect, care for, and even love during such a short time. The crew took the photo of us three standing in front of the library, with Fran holding the famous Oscar.

As the photographer was ready to take a snap, Kim yawned, in a big and slow movement, as if to gulp down everything to be known, to be felt, and to be witnessed in the cosmos.

Ken Mogi, Kim Peek, and Fran Peek

Kim is an honor for all of us. An inspiration, an enigma. I still cherish the image of Kim looking like a lion king. No matter where I am, I will always look for the savannah in which Kim's spirit roams and reigns. We would be able to breath more freely once we find the promised land.

(The meeting took place on the 27th April 2008. The Fuji television program will be broadcast in July 2008. My whole-hearted thanks to Kim and Fran Peek for their kind hospitality.)