Accidental Genius: A little Rain Man within us all?

Darold Treffert MD
MRI Brain Scan

MRI Brain Scan

Jason Padgett was an ordinary person managing a futon and furniture store in Washington State. In September 2002, he was the victim of a brutal mugging in which he sustained a severe concussion. While an MRI showed no gross changes, when he awoke he was experiencing some new, vivid, synesthetic imagery. He began to draw those intricate images simply to be able to demonstrate to others what he was experiencing.

While he had no prior interest or ability in art, he had a chance encounter with a physics professor who pointed out the beautiful drawings were complex, repeating, self-similar geometric patterns called fractals. Jason’s ability to understand math and physics skyrocketed. His stunningly mathematically precise artwork illustrates his intuitive understanding of complex mathematics, something he had no interest in prior to the concussion. Now he lectures on the topic.

His case is an example of “accidental genius,” or acquired savant syndrome, in which ordinary persons develop sudden art, music, mathematical or new language abilities, sometimes at a prodigious level, following head injury, stroke or certain types of dementia.

This startling phenomenon hints at dormant potential - a little Rain Man perhaps - within us all. The challenge is how to tap those hidden abilities that exist within us without some sort of brain catastrophe, and without cognitive impairment, memory loss or other trade-off.

The vast majority of savants I have had the opportunity to know are “congenital” savants, such as Leslie Lemke, where the extraordinary music, art, mathematical or other stunning skills emerge in childhood. Most often, but not always, these savant skills are associated with autism. But I have over 70 cases now of “acquired” savant syndrome - accidental genius - from around the world, each equally surprising and astonishing.

Jason Padgett will be presenting lectures on October 3, 2016 at both St. Agnes Hospital and the Fond du Lac Public Library telling the story of his journey with unexpected genius. He will be bringing along examples of his drawings which are splendid in color and detail. Jason, along with Maureen Seaberg, published a book about his rare condition titled: “Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel,” and Sony Pictures has purchased the movie rights.

Acquired savant syndrome can be explained by what I call the three R’s. First there is brain damage, from concussion or other causes, most often, but not always, to the left hemisphere. Then there is a compensatory Recruitment of other still undamaged brain tissue typically in the right hemisphere. There is Rewiring to that undamaged brain area and Release of until then dormant skills and abilities.

Such dormant capacity, in my view, exists within all of us to greater or lesser degree based on what I call “genetic memory,” which I described in detail in my last column in the Fond du Lac Reporter. Which type of qualitative skills - music, math, art, language for example - and in what quantitative amount varies from person-to-person in the usual bell-shaped curve depending on inheritance from our recent and more even more distant forebears.

To witness a middle-aged builder and carpenter become a poet and artist where no such interest or ability existed prior to a stroke, or to see a 10-year-old boy become a calendar calculator coupled with new, massive autobiographical memory where none existed prior to getting hit in the head by a baseball, is as intriguing to me now as when I met my first congenital savant many years ago. And there are other cases of sudden foreign language acquisition or instant  musical ability. But somehow seeing this sudden emergence of new, unexpected skills in ordinary persons where no such interest or abilities existed pre-injury or incident, makes the search for better understanding savant syndrome, whether congenital or acquired, even more compelling and urgent because within those extraordinary conditions lie tremendous implications for better understanding and appreciating both the brain and human potential.

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