Since time unremembered there have been those among us who have stepped forth with skills, abilities, genius, perceptions, and attributes far beyond the norm. In many cases these have stemmed from some sort of genetic predestination, or even defect, leaving the bearer of these powers with significant shortages in other areas. Yet many are not born into these powers, but rather have them thrust upon them. Just like any super hero origin story there are those nondescript individuals who have undergone some accident or life changing event which has caused them to go through a dark tunnel to emerge from the other side with powers they cannot explain. Far from the realm of comic books, this has proven to be a very real thing, and there are those out there who have gained remarkable skills and abilities from things that should have very well killed them.
When it comes to suddenly developing superpowers, many are those who acquire these inexplicable abilities through some form of injury or physical trauma sustained in an accident, causing some untapped power to surge forth from within. In 1979, a 10-year-old boy named Orlando Serrell was playing baseball when a ball smashed full on into the left side of his head, knocking him senseless. Although at the time he merely shook it off and continued to play, in the coming days he would suffer severe headaches that were at times so painful as to be debilitating, becoming more frequent as time went on. Despite the incredible relentless pain throbbing in his head, Orlando kept the headaches a secret from his parents. After a few days of this, the headaches abruptly stopped, the sea of pain gone, and it seemed at first that everything had returned to normal, but Orlando was about to discover that he had gained a strange new talent from the incident.
It soon became apparent that the boy had developed an incredibly sharp and detailed ability to perfectly remember pretty much everything he saw or experienced with remarkable accuracy, including the most mundane things such as weather on any given day, what he had eaten, done, or worn, everything, for every day of his life. On top of this, he found that he could also perform the rather impressive feat of being able to calculate and correctly give the day of the week for any calendar date in the future, even if that date was far off over the horizon. Orlando became a media sensation at the time, and in later years he has gone on to contribute to medical studies that hope to determine just what it was that triggered these newfound powers. Considering that he had never had any talent even remotely similar to this before being hit in the head with that baseball, doctors hope that by studying Orlando’s brain they can figure out just what area of the brain was jarred and activated by the injury, which could lead to further understanding the brain’s ability to produce this sort of genius and perhaps how to tap into it.
Another serious injury that led to extraordinary abilities was experienced by a humble, nondescript furniture salesman in Tacoma Washington named Jason Padgett. One night in 2002, Padgett went out drinking at a bar and as he was leaving to go home he was jumped and severely beaten by two muggers, getting kicked repeatedly in the head and body and suffering a concussion and ruptured kidney in the process. In the following days he realized that his vision was off somehow, and that everything he looked at seemed to be infused with various strange geometric shapes and lines which he at first did not understand, making the world pixilated in a sense. He began drawing and painting what he was seeing, and it was only later that someone realized that these were not just random designs, but rather complex mathematical formulas in visual geometric form, called fractals. He was essentially seeing the geometric forms of everything through the lens of mathematical formulas, visualizing the world in the myriad wondrous shapes that these created.
This is all especially impressive as Padgett, who was never any good at math and had never really like studying at all, was creating fractals that were very precise, meaning that his brain was intuitively working out incredibly sophisticated mathematical formulas and translating those to the images he saw everywhere he went. Also rather odd is that he was able to accurately render these geometric patterns by hand, something that typically requires much formal training and special tools to pull off, and Padgett is the only known person who can do this solely by hand and without ever having studied it in his life. These were things beyond even the ability of the most masterful mathematicians, yet he was able to do it without even thinking about it. Padget would later go on to seriously study mathematics and number theory, which he of course excels at, and he has written a book of his strange experiences called Struck by Genius (2014).
Scientists who are interested in just how Padgett gained these remarkable abilities have scanned his brain and performed an experiment to see what was going on in there. Padgett was hooked up and then shown a series of math formulas, some of which were real and some of which were nonsensical. When the real formulas came up, the left hemisphere of his brain showed a dramatic increase in activity, completely lighting up, particularly in an area called the “left parietal cortex,” which typically brings together the myriad information pouring in from the different senses, as well as other parts of the brain responsible for visual memory, emotion, planning, and attention. The fake formulas created no such response.
Scientists then used a technique called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” to bombard these active parts of the brain with controlled magnetic pulses in order to see if they could be affected, and it was found that after these pulses Padgett temporarily lost his special abilities. Although this study was not able to explain exactly what was going on or whether these mental powers are permanent or not, it at least sheds some light on which areas of the brain are responsible in this case, and suggests that perhaps all of us have these potential abilities lurking somewhere in us.
There is also the case of Jim Carollo, who in 1988 was involved in a horrendous car crash at the age of 14. The accident tragically killed his mother, and Carollo barely survived, lapsing into a coma that doctors doubted he’d ever wake from. He would remain in the coma for 6 weeks, barely hanging onto life, after which he managed to awaken much to everyone’s utter surprise. After months of physical rehabilitation, Carollo managed to regain some semblance of his old self and returned to school, where he would soon discover that the accident and resulting coma had apparently changed him in some profoundly remarkable ways.
Carollo, who had never been particularly good at or interested in math, began absolutely flying through his math classes, getting perfect scores on tests without studying, even with advanced calculus exams that were far beyond what he should have been capable of. He quickly skipped up to more advanced math courses, but all of these he breezed through without even trying. He was able to easily solve the most sophisticated equations and could quickly memorize any number sequence, including remembering 250 digits of pi in under just a couple of days. He would eventually shoot through the graduate school level of mathematics without studying at all, and through it all he retained a good level of vigor and his other mental faculties, with the only negative side effect of his head trauma being that his short-term memory in other areas had diminished slightly. What caused this sudden, extraordinary mathematical genius? No one really knows.
It is curious to think that we all might be just a knock on the head away from acquired brilliance and that these unfathomable mental powers can be unleashed in such a way from the misunderstood shadows of our minds, but the cases that show this may be so just keep going. In 2006, a Derek Amato, of Denver, Colorado, was at a party with friends and dove head first into a pool, bashing his head on the bottom and knocking himself unconscious in the process. When he next awoke he was in the hospital, where doctors told him that he had suffered a severe concussion. The concussion left him with unbearable headaches, memory loss, and a 35% loss of hearing. It also apparently imbued him with newfound musical genius.
It started with the strange sensation of seeing black and white shapes moving about in the dark when he closed his eyes. At first he did not know what this meant, and believed it to be just another artifact of the head injury he had endured, but he would soon realize that these shapes represented musical notation. Amato, who had never been able to play a musical instrument or to read music before this, found himself suddenly able to play the piano as naturally as breathing. He would describe it as if the black and white shapes were showing him where to move his fingers without any conscious effort on his part, allowing him to intuitively play what they spelled out, and would say of the odd phenomenon when he sat down at a keyboard for the first time in his life:
As I shut my eyes, I found these black and white structures moving from left to right, which in fact would represent in my mind, a fluid and continuous stream of musical notation. My fingers began to scale the piano keys as if I had played all of my life. I can’t explain the feeling of awe that overcame my entire being, although I can tell you the expression on my friend’s face was enough to put us both in tears. That’s my notation. When those black and white squares are going, that’s what my hands do. I’m convinced it’s all for a reason and it’s my job to do it right.
Amato has gone on to master several other musical instruments, which he seems readily able to play despite never studying how, and claims that he has no idea of why he is able to do this. Since then he has been the subject of much scientific scrutiny and has appeared in newspapers and TV shows worldwide, and although he has appeared on stage with other famous musicians and released an album in 2007, his music career has not quite taken off yet, despite his amazing story. Nevertheless, the music just ceaselessly keeps on coming, with Amato saying:
My whole life has changed. I’ve slowed down, even though I’m racing and producing at a pace that not many people understand, you know? If Beethoven scored 500 songs a year back in the day and was considered a pretty brilliant mind, and the doctors tell me I’m scoring 2,500 pieces a year, you can see that I’m a little busy.
While Amato’s piano ability came from a blow to the head, another amazing pianist gained his powers in quite another way. There can be no more of a well-worn superhero origin trope than having special abilities unlocked by a lightning strike, but this is precisely what happened to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Anthony Cicoria in 1994. Cicoria had just hung up a payphone after talking to his mother when a bolt of lightning lashed down from the heavens and struck the phone booth, sending him flying through the air and knocking him completely onto his back with such force that he would later claim that he had been completely ejected from his own body; that he could see the scene playing out below with his body lying there lifeless as bystanders tried to perform CPR on him. When he was sucked back down into his physical form he says he awoke to great pain burning all over, and over the coming days he would find that he had lost chunks of memory and that he constantly felt tired out and depleted. That was when the dreams started.
He claims that he began to hear piano music constantly playing in his dreams, this ethereal music which haunted his sleeping hours, and it was not long before it was blaring through his head during his waking hours as well, an endless symphony that he began to absolutely obsess over. It was all rather odd considering he had never had the slightest interest in the piano before, had never played, and had usually always listened to rock music, yet now he was utterly consumed by piano music and a potent, insatiable urge to play it. He finally got himself a used piano and although he didn’t know how to play at the time was quickly was able to teach himself, after which he spent all of his free time feverishly playing and trying to get the tunes in his head out, to release them into the real world. Cicoria would say of this surreal experience:
It’s like a frequency, a radio band. If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say, ‘It comes from Heaven,’ as Mozart said. It never runs dry. It was a terrible struggle. I would get up at four in the morning and play till I went to work, and when I got home from work I was at the piano all evening. My wife was not really pleased. I was possessed.
A head injury also brought out prodigious artistic ability in a man named Alonzo Clemens, who suffered severe head trauma in an accident when he was a very young boy. The injury would leave him mentally challenged, and with a stunted vocabulary and ability to speak or do other mundane things, but it also gave him the phenomenal ability to sculpt anything he sees in breathtakingly complex detail from memory after just looking at it once, in particular animals. Clemens can simply glance at an animal such as a horse for just a couple of seconds and then go and sculpt an incredibly detailed recreation of it which is accurate down to the last minuscule detail. This sort of thing would take a normal artist hours and hours and constant looking at the subject, yet Clemens can churn these out in under 30 minutes with merely a quick glimpse. Clemens has gone on to become a minor celebrity, and his work has been shown and marveled at all over the world.
Other types of brain trauma can cause these sorts of special abilities and changes as well. One case has its origins in the 1960s, when Italian immigrant Franco Magnani came to America’s shores, in San Francisco, California, and promptly came down with a mysterious illness that caused severe fever, seizures, and delirium, during which he would have vivid dreams of his childhood and memories which he had forgotten about for years. In these dreams, everything was described as being completely detailed and real, and rather than forgetting them after waking up, Magnani found that he could perfectly recall these visions of his past.
So clear were these images, mostly of his childhood village of Pontito, Italy, that he found he was able to spontaneously paint them in an incredibly photorealistic fashion as if they were photographs rather than paintings, down to the finest, most obscure detail. The odd part about all of this is that Magnani, who had been a cook in Italy, had never been able to paint, and indeed had never painted a picture in his life. What’s more, these paintings proved to be incredibly precise, matching up perfectly to photographs taken in Pontito for comparison. He has gone on to paint a wide variety of things, displaying an impressive talent for someone who had never picked up a brush before. While the potent memories dredged up from his past were attributed to the fever’s effect on the temporal lobe, it remains unexplained as to how he gained such incredible painting talents overnight.
Additionally, there is Tommy McHugh, who was an ex-con and all around troublemaker who had never really amounted to much until in 2000, when he suffered a life-threatening massive stroke and bleeding around the brain while he was in the restroom of all places. The stroke came out of nowhere, and when he awoke he found that everything looked strange, and that there were numbers dancing everywhere. When he was finally found lying on the floor, he discovered that everything he said rhymed without his conscious desire to do so. He would say of the bizarre incident:
I was sitting on the toilet. I suddenly felt an explosion in the left side of my head and ended up on the floor. I think the only thing that kept me conscious was that I didn’t want to be found with my pants down. Then the other side of my head went bang! I woke up in hospital and looked out of the window to see the tree was sprouting numbers. 3, 6, 9. Then I started talking in rhyme…
Not long after this, McHugh, who had never had the slightest interest or ability in art or poetry, began to constantly and obsessively paint and write. He turned up prodigious amounts of work, with his mind working faster than it ever had before, and with talent and sheer creativity he had never displayed in the past. Those mysterious numbers also continued to pop up everywhere he looked, and he has said of this newfound creative outpouring and ability:
My brain is showing me endless, endless corridors. I’ll paint three or six or nine pictures at a time. I see those numbers in my head all the time. Canvases became too costly, so I started painting the ceilings and the wallpaper and the floor. I can’t stop painting and sculpting. Give me a mountain and I’ll turn it into a profile. If you give me a bare tree I’ll change it, so when spring come all the leaves will create the face, the mouth, the lips. Without hurting the tree.
In all of these cases we have people emerging from potentially catastrophic brain damage with newfound abilities, skills, powers, and perceptions beyond the normal person, but what is going on here? How is this happening? Although poorly understood by science, most believe that these people are tapping into the same reservoir of mysterious mental powers that are accessed by savants, who are through some weird wiring of the brain and forces not yet fully understood able to unlock vast mental abilities normally hidden away from us. It is believed that the brain trauma suffered by these otherwise healthy, normal individuals has broken down some barrier to allow them access to this same sea of raw potential, a condition called “acquired savant syndrome.” Very little is known about how it all works, as there have only ever been a few dozen confirmed cases, only a few of which I have covered here, but it is fascinating all the same, that we all have within us these immense powers that are merely sleeping and gestating within our brains, waiting to be unleashed. One Berit Brogaard, a neuroscientist and philosophy professor at the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, has said of this latent power and the unveiling of it through brain damage thus:
Our hypothesis is that we have abilities that we cannot access. Because they are not conscious to us, we cannot manipulate them. Some reorganization takes place that makes it possible to consciously access information that was there, lying dormant.
What secrets do our bodies have tucked away from our knowledge and understanding? What miraculous powers lie waiting there in the darkness of our minds and bodies, untapped and unused? Are these things that lie within us all, which we can somehow find a way to tap into? Can we all be geniuses or display superhuman faculties like these people we have looked at here or are these just special cases? These are some of the many questions generated by cases such as these, leaving us both perplexed and also allured by the potential wonders that lie within us. They are also questions that we are not really close to answering. The brain is such an immensely complex machine, with so many moving parts and so many permutations of factors that could affect it in a mind-boggling number of ways that the process of even beginning to understand it all is a daunting one to say the least. Until we have some grasp of what is going on here just know that every one of you could be just one bash on the head away from powers beyond your wildest dreams.