Pop culture is rife with examples of characters suffering brain damage leading to memory loss or personality changes following a solid clunk on the head; it’s been done to death, and using such devices in a story these days is considered to be hack at best. This entertainment cliche, however, is one scientists are actively researching, as numerous cases of head trauma victims developing previously undiscovered talents almost instantly have become well-documented and rigorously studied.
The phenomenon is known as Acquired Savant Syndrome, and the only way to acquire it is through traumatic brain injury. Many of those with Acquired Savant Syndrome developed artistic skills, like the ability to play music, to create art, or to hand-draw detailed images derived from mathematical calculations typically only rendered by computers. In the lives these folks had before their injury, they couldn’t do any of these things. The new talents are believed to be related, somehow, to the specific head injuries they experienced.
Before we get too deeply into this, it should be said, coercing a friend to drop an anvil out of an eighth-floor apartment window, onto your nugget as you stand on the street below, isn’t likely to result in an instant ability to play guitar like a rock god when you return to consciousness. So don’t be getting any bright ideas. Savantism isn’t among the normal side-effects of head trauma. Also, while it might sound great to develop an artistic talent instantly, it is a talent that comes at a price. Many people with Acquired Savant Syndrome battle headaches, vision problems, and countless other more common symptoms associated with being clunked in the head.
Brain injury did lead to the discovery of amazing talents for these people though:
Jason Padgett was outside of a neighborhood bar when hoodlums struck him in the head while robbing him for a fistful of dollars. The blow left him with distorted, grid-like vision, severe obsessive compulsive disorder, and a new-found inclination for drawing fractals. He claims prior to the injury, his primary objective in life was to find the next beer on his never-ending quest for a good time. He reports being a terrible student, whose interest in math ranked somewhere up there with his interest in being hit in the head and robbed outside of a bar — which was zilch, zippo, and nada, otherwise known as no interest in math whatsoever. When a physicist explained the significance of a fractal he drew, and urged him to go to college for math courses, he did, and now he’s considered by some to be operating on a genius level. He’s recently written about his experience in a book called Struck By Genius.
Derek Amato dove headfirst into a shallow pool and banged his head against the bottom so hard it resulted in a concussion. After receiving medical treatment for the injury, he was at a friend’s house when he claims a keyboard in the room grabbed his attention to the point of excluding everything else around him. He sat down at the keys and played like he’d been doing it his entire life. In reality, it was his first time ever really playing any piano-like instrument. His previous music experience was with a guitar, and he says that experience equates to little more than just fooling around. Like Padgett, he too has suffered some setbacks from the injuries that opened his mind to the gift of improvisational musical abilities. He lost part of his hearing, fluorescent lights bother him, he has frequent headaches, and he also sees vivid images of black and white squares that guide his music.
When Orlando Serrell was a child, he was hit in the head with a baseball, but unlike Don Zimmer, who didn’t know what day it was when he awoke from a two-week coma after being hit in the head by a pitch, Serrell came to with the amazing ability to determine what day of the week a particular date in the past fell on within his lifetime, and what the weather was like in his hometown that day as well. Zimmer’s injury convinced Major League Baseball to require the use of helmets by batters, while Serrell’s injury has convinced some neuroscientists we all might have abilities like these but just don’t have the ability to access the skills within our own brains.
When Alonzo Clemons was about three years old he fell and hit his head causing a severe brain injury. Not long after this injury, his mother noticed he was obsessively sculpting animals out of anything he could find that was pliable and would stick together. This wasn’t something he had shown interest in before the injury. His compulsion to sculpt is still there more than 40 years later, and now his sculptures sell for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. That’s not a bad price for an item he’s able to sculpt in half an hour.
There are reportedly somewhere between 30-40 verified cases of Acquired Savant Syndrome like the ones above. The onset of each one was brought about in a different way, and each developed their own unique set of skills after their injuries. The one thing the cases all have in common is damage to the central nervous system. The damage, it is believed, is what triggers the brains of those with Acquired Savant Syndrome, I wish I could abbreviate that but it just feels weird writing it that way, to rewire itself creating a new relationship between the left and right hemispheres.
Dr. Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist who has focused his energy on Savant Syndrome, is among the go-to experts on the subject of savantism in general. He was an adviser on the set of Rain Man, the movie which is credited with introducing Savantism into popular culture in general.
Treffert says a out half of all cases of Savant Syndrome occur in people with some form of autism, but not everybody with autism has a special gift like Savants do. Only 1 in 10 people with autism show signs of Savant Syndrome. The other half is made up of people with other developmental disabilities or central nervous system disorders, or who have suffered injuries causing damage to the central nervous system, such as the acquired savants mentioned above.
In some cases, individuals suffering from dementia-like disorders also often develop savant-like skills, particularly with artistic ability. Artistic abilities such as painting, sculpting, playing music, and drawing, are among the most commonly reported savant skills in general. The frequency of such skills being the ones developed, has led to theories involving left hemisphere vs right hemisphere of the brain.
In Treffert’s paper about savantism, he details studies showing many savants, including the acquired variety, show signs of left hemisphere damage. The theory behind the resulting savantism is a right hemisphere compensation to make up for the lagging ability of the left side of the brain.
Studies of acquired savants have shown most have suffered damage to the left side of the brain’s temporal lobe. The temporal lobe is where we process visual and auditory data and make sense of it. The right side’s compensation of the lagging abilities of the left side, is what some believe opens the door to the newly acquired artistic talents.
Acquired Savants have led some to believe we might all have these talents within us, but our brains get in the way of us accessing them. Specifically, the left hemisphere of the brain battling the right hemisphere to keep our thoughts in check, and keep us on task with what needs to be done rather than what we might want to do.
In some cases of savantism, like the case of 10-year-old Nandana Unnikrishnan, skills go beyond the typical art, math, and super memory powers exhibited by most savants. Unnikrishnan is said to be able to read her mother’s thoughts with her mind. In an article about the girl, Treffert was cited as saying around 1 percent of the 317 savants he’s documented have also reported paranormal abilities such as ESP and psi.
The fact that savant skills, entirely dormant before CNS (Central Nervous System) injury or disease, can surface by some “release” (disinhibition) process raises intriguing questions about dormant capacity existing within us all. The challenge of course, if that is so, is how to access that hidden knowledge and skill without some sort of CNS catastrophe. And work to achieve just that is now underway. — Dr. Darold Treffert
There are documented cases of Acquired Savant Syndrome as early as the 1920s, about 40 years after the first documented case of Savant Syndrome, but researchers didn’t learn much about the medical causes for it until technology allowed for accurate scanning of brain functions. That’s when the common thread of specific brain injuries came into light. More has been learned about Acquired Savant Syndrome over the past 20 years than ever before, but still, as the case with Unnikrishnan, there are a lot of questions yet to be answered. Of particular interest now is whether we all have the abilities acquired savants have shown, but just haven’t learned to access the parts of the brain necessary to do them.
It’s easy to forget how amazing our brains actually are.
The 3-pound lump of gray matter in between my ears gives me the ability to read, process that information, and then write about it. That writing is little more than a bunch of little black squiggles which are interpretable by other brains. The dream I had last night where I visited a cabin in the woods for a few days of vacation time and found cult-leader Charles Manson living there, and rather than leave, we coexisted as a twisted odd couple, came from my brain. This dream was probably influenced by the article Heavy Metal’s 12 Most Badass Stage Names I read right before bedtime.
Everything we know and experience in our lives is tied directly to the brain, so it makes one wonder what all the brain is capable of doing. It makes me wish i could visit future societies every few centuries just to see how things evolve.