I didn’t know this before, but I learned from a copyrighted article from Britain’s Observer newspaper, re-printed here in the English-language Japan Times newspaper on Saturday, January 7, 2006 that the character of the autistic savant Raymond Babbit, played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 movie Rain Man (directed by Barry Levinson and co-starring Tom Cruise), is based on a real person. He is 54-year-old American autistic savant Kim Peek. Peek currently lives with his parents in Sault Lake City, Utah. Subsequently I briefly looked up Peek’s name on the Internet and read some more about him.
As a child he was deemed severely retarded. This was in the days before autism was classified as a separate condition. And, although Dustin Hoffman - who met Peek in February 1987 in preparation for the role - plays Raymond as an autistic adult in the film, doctors say that he is not really autistic because he has an outgoing, not a withdrawn personality. On IQ tests he scores 87, which is higher than the definition of a retarded person, but still well below the human average of 100 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Quotient Test. However, some of his sub-scores in specific categories are near genius level. So, for example, he excels at arithmetic calculations, and he has a prodigious memory. He was born with a malformed cerebellum, and he lacks a corpus callosum, the thick bundle of nerves that normally connects the brain’s two hemispheres. Perhaps the lack of a corpus callosum accounts for his performance with arithmetic and memory. In ‘normal’ humans, whose two brain hemispheres are connected, the language center which is in the left brain, usually dominates the right and all the functions in the right hemisphere - memory, calculation - because of the role of language in our lives. Lacking a corpus callosum means that Mr. Peek is deficient in language - a key skill for performance on any kind of test - and left with the freedom (or the necessity) to develop other areas of his brain beyond the normal human bounds. For these reasons, he is a source of neurologists’ research into the brain. He demonstrates that the flexibility of the brain is greater than most of us imagine, and its capacity to learn and retain information eye-opening. Many of us have heard the statistic that in our lives we only use about a tenth of our brain’s capacity or ability, and people like Kim Peek supply a hint of the possible.
So, for example, he has a photographic, or “eidetic” memory and is known to know over 9,000 books by heart and can instantly and accurately quote them; he can accurately direct people around cities whose maps he memorized years ago, but which he has never visited; he has total recall of the dates of all major world events.