Psychological Medicine

A date to remember: the nature of memory in savant calendrical calculators

L. HEAVEY a1c1, L. PRING a1 and B. HERMELIN a1
a1 Goldsmiths College, University of London


Background. Savant calendar calculators can supply with speed the day of the week of a given date. Although memory is suggested to be an important component of this unusual ability, memory function has never been systematically investigated in these skilled yet learning impaired individuals.

Methods. Eight savant calendrical calculators, most of whom had autism, were compared with eight verbal IQ, age and diagnosis matched controls on digit and word span tests and measures of long-term memory for words and calendrical information (individual years). In an analogue to the ‘generation effect’, the savants' memory for dates was also compared following calculation and study/read tasks.

Results. The savants did not differ from controls on measures of general short- and long-term memory. They did, however, show a clear recall superiority for the long-term retention of calendrical material. They also remembered calculated dates better than those that were only studied.

Conclusions. A general mnemonic advantage cannot explain savant date calculation skills. Rather, through exposure to date information, the savants are suggested to develop a structured calendar-related knowledge base with the process of calculation utilizing the interrelations within this knowledge store. The cognitive processing style characteristic of autism may also play a role in the acquisition of this savant ability.

c1 Address for correspondence: Dr Lisa Heavey, MRC Child Psychiatry Unit, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF.