Stephen Wiltshire was born in London in 1974. As a child, Stephen was a mute. At the age of three he was diagnosed as autistic, and in that same year his father died in a motorcycle accident.
At five he was sent to the Queensmill School for the autistic in London. The instructors there discovered that Stephen had an intense passion for art. Even as a child, his skill and attention to detail was exceptional.
They used this passion to help teach him to talk. Stephen was a mute, and avoided communication with others as much as possible.
So his instructors at Queensmill would take away his art supplies when he wasn’t using them so that he was forced to communicate with them when he wanted to draw again. He started with just sounds, but eventually he said his first word: “paper”.
He learned to speak fully at the age of nine. By that time, his passion for art was already extremely developed. His favorite subjects were American cars (he’s said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them) and the buildings of London.
During his time at Queensmill, Stephen’s instructors discovered that he had an extraordinary gift: he was able to reproduce extremely intricate sketches after seeing an image only once.
As an adult, Stephen used this skill to jump-start his career as an architectural artist by flying over massive cities and then reproducing huge, elaborate sketches of the cities, down to the number of windows in each building and the clothes on clothing lines.
I’ve gathered a few videos showcasing his mind-blowing talent. Enjoy!
Stephen draws New York City for UBS’s “We Will Not Rest” campaign in 2011:
Stephen draws Rome after flying over it for the first time:
Stephen draws Singapore after a helicopter fly-over (time-lapse):
Stephen takes on his largest ever panoramic drawing: a nearly 360 degree image of Tokyo:
Stephen is what is known as an autistic savant. Autistic savants have damage to the left anterior lobe of the brain, which plays a key role in processing sensory input and forming memories.
Because of this, they are able to access lower-level information like the extremely intricate details of buildings in Stephen’s works of art.
This information actually exists in all of our brains, but it’s normally unavailable to our conscious awareness because our brains classify this information as superfluous or non-essential.
However, studies and controversial experiments have proved that we can tap into these same talents by using transcranial magnetic stimulation: temporarily shutting down parts of the left anterior lobe using magnets.
Check out the video below to see how it effected creativity and other brain functions in the fascinating video below:
I’m no saint. Just like everyone else, I get frustrated with people from time to time. If you catch me after a particularly maddening encounter, you may hear the words “ignorant”, “bigoted”, “close-minded”, and maybe even “asshole”.
But one word you will never hear me use to describe a person is “dumb”. The increasingly popular idea that the world is full of stupid people is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be “smart”.
Real intelligence is simply the measure of a person’s curiosity.
As a child, I was deprived of video games and cable television (in hindsight, I’m eternally grateful for it). So, I explored outside, dug things up, made messes, did questionable “experiments” in the kitchen, and burned stuff every chance I got (what little boy isn’t a pyromaniac?).
I also asked a lot of questions. I mean a lot. Why is the sky blue? Why is rain wet? Why does grandma keep an extra set of teeth in a glass in her bathroom?
One day I guess my mom just got tired of trying to answer them all, so she took me on my first trip to the library. I’ll never forget what she said as we entered that temple of learning:
“The answer to every question you could ever have is in here.”
I was immediately hooked. From then on, when I wanted to know how something worked or why something was the way it was, I went to the library and found a book I could read about it.
I wasn’t critiquing the authors’ literary styles, or analyzing their sentence structure, or looking for deeper meanings. I was just enjoying the reading and relishing in my newly found power to find answers to every question.
That’s why today I have a wealth of relatively random facts that I can recall whenever necessary. It’s not because I was any smarter than any other kid my age, it’s just that I had parents who showed me a place where I could ask as many questions as I wanted and actually find the answers on my own.
Calling someone stupid also means you don’t understand how the brain works.
The average brain is made up of about 100 billion brain cells called neurons. Each of these neurons has the potential to connect to any of the others.
If you can remember your combinations and permutations unit in 7th grade math, you’ll know that the total number of possible connections that can be formed between 100 billion neurons is equal to 100 billion factorial:
100,000,000 factorial = 100,000,000,000 x 99,999,999,999 x 99,999,998 etc. all the way down to 1.
So what’s the total number of possible connections? Well, I tried to do 100 billion factorial on five different online scientific calculators and they all gave me the same answer: infinity (the real answer is obviously not actually infinity, but it’s a number with about 25 billion zeroes).
That’s right. There are virtually infinite ways in which our brain’s neurons can potentially connect to one another, and it’s the combination of these neural pathways that allows our brains to function.
When we are born, there are very few connections in our brain. This basically means that our potential is limitless.
As we begin to get older, our brain realizes that certain abilities, like being able distinguish monkey faces as well as we distinguish human faces, aren’t really very useful. Consequently, those pathways erode away-the typical adult only maintains a few trillion pathways throughout their life.
I know the monkey example seemed a bit random, but it’s actually from a real study. In 2005, researchers demonstrated that six-month old infants could distinguish between the faces of different monkeys just as easily as they could between different human faces.
However, by the age of nine months old the toddlers’ brains had realized that the skill wasn’t useful, and most of them lost the ability. Only the babies who continued having to differentiate between the monkeys (ie. for whom the skill was still useful) retained the ability.
There is the potential for some extremely powerful, some would even say magical abilities within our brains. However, the brain’s number one priority is survival, so it limits things like creativity and imaginativeness to ensure that we can function well in society and provide for ourselves.
But sometimes, the part of the brain which holds back that dam of possibilities gets damaged, allowing glimmers of our superhuman potential to shine through.
That is the case with people suffering from savant syndrome. Savant syndrome occurs when a mental disability like autism damages the part of the brain that controls our basic functions.
Although those suffering from the condition usually lack the basic motor skills to tie their own shoes or dress themselves, the condition also liberates other parts of their brain, giving them some mind-blowing abilities:
A man who can read a book two pages at a time (one page with each eye) and remembers every detail about the 12,000+ books he’s read so far:
A man who flawlessly played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 after hearing it once. He was 16, never had any classical training, and had just learned to walk on his own a year earlier:
A man they call the human camera, who can recreate entire cityscapes, down to the number of windows in every building, after viewing it once:
When we are born, we all have the potential to be as smart as Stephen Hawking, or as funny as Richard Pryor, or as musical as Jimi Hendrix. But from that point on, who we become depends on the neural connections that are created by the environment we live in.
And not only does everyone have amazing potential, but everyone has something to teach you. Knowledge can be obtained from books or computers, but wisdom can only be obtained through experience.
Every person in this world has a life experience unlike anyone else’s. We all gain perspective about the world from the lessons we learn throughout our lives, so there’s a nearly infinite amount of wisdom we can obtain from those around us, if we’re willing to look for it.
Our brains are naturally curious, but this curiosity must be protected and fed for it to achieve its potential. Remember, Einstein was dyslexic and mildly autistic as a child, and he ended up becoming arguably the greatest scientific mind of our times.
Calling someone dumb makes them scared to ask questions- it stunts their curiosity, thereby inhibiting their ability to find out the truth on their own.
So, every time you call someone dumb, you are actually the one making society less intelligent.
Professor Florian Holzapfel and aerospace engineer Tim Fricke are leading a team of researchers at Technische Universität München (TUM), with the goal of creating an aircraft that can be controlled by thought alone.
To do this, the team created a highly specialized helmet covered in electroencephalography electrodes, which are able to record the electrical impulses that come from our brain. These signals are then translated into flight commands using a complex computer algorithm created by scientists at the Berlin Institute of Technology.
A team from the University of Minnesota recently used similar technology to create thought-controlled drones. Check out the video below to see them being tested out.
The idea seems outlandish, but the concept has already been proven to be realistic. The new technology was tested on seven volunteers with varying levels of flight experience (one had no flight experience at all).
Though they were tested on flight simulators, which lack some of the real-life conditions of flight, even the subjects with little to no experience were able to fly well enough to partially fulfill some of the requirements of the actual pilot’s license test. Some of the subjects were even able to land their simulator aircraft in conditions of low visibility.
Fricke’s goal is to make flight more accessible while also creating a safer, more relaxed flying experience:
“A long-term vision of the project is to make flying accessible to more people… With brain control, flying, in itself, could become easier. This would reduce the work load of pilots and thereby increase safety. In addition, pilots would have more freedom of movement to manage other manual tasks in the cockpit.”
Fricke and his team still have a number of issues to figure out though. In real flight, for example, pilots feel wind resistance while steering, and if the wind load is significant, pilots have to actually use physical force to maintain smooth navigation. The researchers have not yet figured out how to solve this problem.
Also, no word yet on what happens if you start obsessively worrying about crashing while operating the thought-guided aircraft. Hopefully they’ll look into that as well.
BONUS: The Technische Universität München (TUM), or Technical University of München, has one of the coolest interiors ever, including slides that you can take to get from upper floors back down to the ground floor.
Sam Shames is an MIT student who had spent a lot of time dealing with a fairly common problem: he tends to run hot while his mom tends to run cold. Sam realized that there had to be a better way to accommodate them both.
He set about doing research on how our bodies regulate temperature. In one particular paper, he found some key information: the study talked about how locally heating or cooling small areas on our body can have major effects on how cold or hot we feel overall.
The research suggested that any change in temperature faster than 0.1º Celsius per second would produce the perceptual sensation of feeling cooler or warmer. Using this information, Sam and a team of fellow MIT students designed Wristify.
The key is keeping the wearer from getting acclimated to the colder or warmer temperature. Here’s Sam discussing this concept:
“The human body and human skin is not like a thermometer. If I put something cold directly on your body at a constant temperature, the body acclimates and no longer perceives it as cold.”
To avoid this problem, Wristify has a 15 second cycle: 5 seconds on, then 10 seconds off.
By sending these regular shocks of cold or hot temperature into the wrist (they are able to change the temperature by up to 0.4º C per second), the device tricks our mind into thinking we are either cooler or warmer than we actually are.
The device is still very much a prototype, made of $50 worth of various electronics and wires strapped to an old fake Rolex band. The team is extremely excited to take the next step of development, making the device more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing.
They are also confident that their idea has the potential to revolutionize how we heat and cool ourselves. As Sam puts it,
“Why heat or cool a building when you could heat or cool a person?”
87% of Americans used air conditioning in 2007. While developing countries like Brazil (11%) and India (2%) used significantly less air conditioning than the U.S. in 2007, it is predicted that by 2025, large emerging countries like these will account for more than a billion new consumers.
The average human brain weighs only about 3 pounds, but contains upwards of 80 billion brain cells, or neurons.
Nearly every detail about who we are and how we behave is locked in the connections between these neurons. Check out this awesome infographic video from Nicolás Borie Williams which helps you visualize things on the same tiny scale that our brains operate on.
Have you ever been dealing with a particularly difficult situation and decided to take a walk to clear your head? Well, a new study from Stanford suggests that there is real scientific evidence that walking improves your creative thinking.
The recently published study was co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in the field of educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor of education at Stanford.
To test out the theory, the researchers compared levels of creative thinking under a number of different conditions: seated inside, seated outside and pushed in a wheelchair (to simulate the visual experience of walking), walking on a treadmill in a blank room and walking outside.
They measured creativity by assigning the participants a number of different tasks which required creative thinking. For example, participants were given several sets of three different objects and asked to think of uses for the objects other than their typical purpose. The fewer participants thought of a particular response, the more points it was given for creativity. They also eliminated responses that weren’t appropriate applications for the objects (saying that you could use a truck tire as a pinkie ring, for example).
The results: walking consistently created much higher levels of creativity than sitting. For the participants tested inside, walking on a treadmill increased creativity by 60% as compared to sitting.
In another test, participants were asked to come up with complex analogies from basic phrases. 100% of the participants walking outside were able to come up with at least one complex and completely original analogy, compared to just 50% of the participants seated inside.
The researchers did note, however, that walking didn’t seem to have any positive effects on the type of focused thinking we use when responding to problems with just one correct answer.
Meet Henry. In his younger days he was a vibrant, fun-loving man who was always full of energy. As Henry grew older and his health began to deteriorate, however, he became more and more depressed and withdrawn. It got to the point where Henry was almost completely unresponsive.
Enter Dan Cohen. Dan is a social worker who came up with the genius idea of giving iPods to seniors, customized with music from their era. This video (an excerpt from the documentary Alive Inside), shows Henry’s reaction to his favorite music. Enjoy!
What impressed me the most was how the effects of the music remained after the headphones were removed. I think we should be seriously looking into including music as part of mental health treatments.
Our brains are wired to find patterns, but as we get older, this skill becomes less and less necessary, contributing to mental deterioration.
Is it possible that the patterned structure of music played just as much of a role in Henry’s transformation as the joy he got listening to music from his era? I think the chances are pretty good, but either way, there is no denying that music has a powerful effect on our minds.
To find out more about the documentary Alive Inside, visit their homepage here.
Rats are misunderstood. Because they happen to prefer the grimier habitations of this world, we have a natural fear of them. However, the average rat is just as intelligent as the average dog! These guys will prove it to you.
A young woman in the Netherlands had spent all her 22 years suffering from a bone disorder that increased the thickness of her skull.
At the time of the procedure, it was 5cm thick (normal skulls are around 1.5cm). The extra bone was putting pressure on her brain, causing vision problems and chronic headaches.
So a team of brain surgeons from University Medical Centre in Utrecht in the Netherlands decided to attempt a bold procedure: removing the top half of her skull and replacing it with one they had created using a 3-D printer.
The operation took 23 long hours, and was lead by Dr. Bon Verweij, who said,
“It was only a matter of time before critical brain functions were compromised and she would die.”
That was 3 months ago, but the hospital has just recently released details of the procedure. Since the operation, the patient has fully regained her eyesight, and is symptom-free and back to work.
The university claims that this operation is the first of its kind.
Last August, a team of scientists and researchers from Japan and Germany set out to create a simulation of human brain activity.
Aware of the brain’s complexity, the research team set a seemingly conservative goal: simulate 1% of 1 second of brain activity using Japan’s K computer, a supercomputer composed of 82,000 processors (each with 16GB of memory).
The K computer was the world’s fastest computer up until 2011 and now sits at #4 on the list. So how long did it take the K computer to complete the simulation?
The brain is composed of about 86 billion neurons. The connections between various neurons control everything, from our behaviors and instincts to our skills and memories.
That means that there are hundreds of trillions of different neuron-to-neuron pathways (known as synapses) that could potentially be transmitting electrical brain signals to one another at any given moment.
In fact, in that 1% of 1 second of brain activity (which took the supercomputer 40 minutes of real time to simulate), the supercomputer recorded 10.4 trillion synapses, each with 24 bytes of memory. Let’s do some quick math for perspective:
10.4 trillion synapses x 24 bytes of memory each = 249.6 trillion bytes, a little over 238 million megabytes.
By comparison, the average full-length HD movie takes up about 500-700 megabytes of space.