Sunday, July 26, 2009


The Kerward Derby award to the smartest person in the world has a strong contender in Kim Peek, a 58 year old Salt Lake City man with an IQ of 73, who was the inspiration for the 1988 Oscar winning movie Rain Man. If you haven't heard of the Kerward Derby, it comes from an episode of Rocky & Bullwinkle created by the late comedic genius, Jay Ward. (See KENSUSKINREPORT, January 20, 2008). Whoever places the Kerward Derby on his head becomes the smartest person in the world.

In the cartoon, Bullwinkle Moose places it on his head and says, "The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the sides.", or something to that effect.

In any event, Dianne and I stayed up late Saturday night to watch the Discovery Channel portrayal of the real Rain Man, Mr. Peek. We had planned to go to sleep, but the first minute of the program hooked us, and we had to stay up in the wee hours to watch the whole thing.

Mr. Peek is a savant. His social skills are severely limited, but he has been able to speed read and virtually memorize approximately 12,000 books in about 14 areas of study including sports, history, geography, music, and biography. How about the Bible! The Space Program! Actors and Actresses! Shakespeare!

He can identify most classical music compositions, giving the dates they were written, not to mention the composer's birth date and place of birth and death. You want to know the day of the week for those dates? He can recite that too! After he finishes reading a book, he places it back on the shelf upside down so that he knows he read it.

He has memorized all the postal zipcodes and can retrieve them quicker than can the U.S. Postal Service computer. On the TV program, he met the local postmaster of a California city. The postmaster was a native of Swampscott, Massachusetts. Without hesitation, Mr. Peek said "01907", but it depended on whether he lived on the North or South side of town. Actually, I looked it up, and the town has only one zipcode--maybe he got the other zipcode from neighboring Lynn or Salem.

Attempting to trip him up, a smartass high school kid asked him, "Who was the winning pitcher in the third game of the 1926 World Series?" Actually, I was proud of myself when I amazed Dianne by correctly answering "Grover Cleveland Alexander" an instant before Mr. Peek did, although he mentioned the St. Louis Cardinals, and the final score. I suppose if they had asked him to recite the box score, he probably could have done that also. I'm not that smart--I recalled Mr. Alexander, portrayed by Ronald Reagan (with Doris Day as his wife) in the 1952 movie The Winning Team, which I saw in my youth.

For many years, the doctors thought Mr. Peek was mentally retarded. In fact, his father and caregiver, Fran Peek chaired a committee for the Association for Retarded Citizens. It was at the 1984 convention that Fran Peek met Hollywood screenwriter Barry Morrow who had previously written a TV movie, Bill, about a retarded person, played by Mickey Rooney.

Morrow met Kim Peek and was astounded by his encyclopedic knowledge of facts, much of it interesting, but basically, useless. For example, who cares whether Beethoven was born on a Tuesday or a Thursday? Because he has memorized the calendar, he can and will tell you the day of the week of any event and in the future, like the day you turn 65 and can retire.

The movie character in Rain Man, played by actor Dustin Hoffman, was a composite savant, drawn from several real life people. A consummate professional, Hoffman spent considerable time with Kim and other savants and their families to develop the movie role. Unlike Mr. Hoffman's movie character, Mr. Peek is not autistic and not retarded, at least not in the usual sense. Not all autistic people are savants, and not all savants are autistic.

Mr. Peek's brain, which has been studied extensively, lacks a corpus collosum--the connecting tissue between the left and right hemispheres. The effect is that his motor skills are poor and he cannot do many mundane tasks, like dressing himself. He also has great difficulty with abstract thoughts like metaphors and proverbs, although he has developed a mild sense of humor. His condition illustrates the limitations of standard IQ tests--his 73 IQ is far below average despite his clearly evident capacity for learning.

Kim developed the ability to memorize in infancy--from the age of 16-20 months. He learned to read on his own at age 3, reading the dictionary. He couldn't walk until age 4, and he is quite clumsy today. He has not developed normal social relationships. He is extremely dependent upon his father, Fran, who is now in his 80's, to protect him and help perform those daily tasks.

Unlike autistic people, Kim's social skills have improved over the years as he and Fran have made numerous personal appearances across the country. He has acquired self-esteem and is now comfortable in large groups of people where he enjoys sharing his knowledge. He has learned to look people in the eye and give compliments. He'll ask a stranger the name of his hometown and then tell the history of that town, name the radio and TV stations, the zipcode and the highways that run through it. That can be a great networking tool if you can harness it.

For many years, Mr. Peek has worked at a day workshop for adults with disabilities. But by going out in the world and making personal appearances, he has become a goodwill ambassador for the disabled by demonstrating that people with mental disabilities have the ability to learn and develop different skills. We learn that the human brain works in strange ways, and there is much the experts don't understand. As we can plainly see, Mr. Peek ably demonstrates that we use only a small amount of our brain capacity.




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