Traumatic Brain injuries carry significant long-term social and cognitive effects for those afflicted. Often victims’ lives are completely upended to the degree that they can barely recognize themselves. Other times, the brain responds to trauma in spectacular ways, resulting in talents the injured person never before expressed. This is called acquired savant syndrome.
Psychiatrist Darold Treffert is s clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin, considered to be an expert on the autism spectrum. Autistic savants, also known as congenital savants, so greatly intrigued him that he spent the next 50 years devoted to studying them. His first book entitled Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome extensively explained this phenomenon. Autistic savants often lack social and development skills, but have prodigious mathematical, artistic or musical talent.
But Dr. Treffert began to come across cases where the people were not born with this monumental singular talent. Instead, these astounding abilities emerged after severe traumatic injury to the brain.
Understanding Acquired Savant Syndrome
Acquired savants are not common. For the most part they are males. Dr. Treffert suspects there are less than 50 in the world. In 2010, he released a book on the subject called Island of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant, which documents his findings on these exceptional people.
In all cases of savant syndrome, the right brain hemisphere compensates for the injured left hemisphere. For this reason, savant skills tend to manifest in five specific areas: calendar calculations, mathematics, art, music, and mechanical or spatial skills. Sometimes the trauma is external, such as the blow to the head suffered by artist Alonzo Clemens at age 3. Other times the damage is due to illness, such as dementia.
Orlando Serrell is another example of genius level skills unearth by traumatic brain injury. At 10 years old, Serrell was hit on the head by a baseball while playing with friends. Serrell suffered intense headaches for some time afterwards, but once they cleared, calendar calculation ability emerged. Suddenly Serrell could recall events in his life, down to that day’s weather, with incredible accuracy.
One recently celebrated acquired savant, Derek Amato, gained remarkable skills after a knocking himself senseless on the shallow cement bottom of a Jacuzzi. The TBI left him with 35 % hearing loss in one ear, memory loss, headaches. Four days later, another symptom emerged – an intuitive, complex understanding of how to arrange and play melodies, harmonies and arpeggios. Derek was now a full fledge composer after little to no previous musical training. Of course the downside is he still must contend with the very real, very painful additional symptoms of his injury. Nonetheless, his entry into the world of acquired savant syndrome has given him a new purpose in life.
Being able to share artistic, mathematical and musical talent with the world is the brightest spot in the otherwise dismal reality of living with a traumatic brain injury. TBI too often only results in loss – loss of memory, social skills, cognitive abilities, and sometimes loss of one’s identity. To be able to work through these symptoms with creative or mathematical genius is a gift to both the person afflicted and the world at large.
Unlocking Our Hidden Potential
No doubt about it, savants, whether acquired or autistic, are special people. They prove the awesome power of the human brain in all its intricacies. The fact that acquired savants gain their remarkable skills after injury give clues to the potential in all of us. Dr. Treffert notes,
“The fact that savant skills, entirely dormant before [central nervous system] injury or disease can surface by some ‘release’ process raises intriguing questions about dormant capacity existing in all of us.”
Nueroscientist and professor Berit Broggard of the Center for Neurodynamics at University of Missouri-St. Louis theorizes that acquired savant syndrome results from the brain reabsorbing neurotransmitters partially destroyed during injury. This forced re-wiring of the brain is what allows savant skills to emerge. Scientists are hoping to tap into this potential with low frequency magnetic stimulation to the brains. Until then, we can all continue to enjoy acquired savants’ pure mathematical genius, artistic talent and beautiful music.