The Amazing Science of Instant Savants

In rare cases, traumatic head injuries unleash remarkable creative talents in the victims. Is there a genius lurking in each of us?

Adam Piore Updated: Dec 5, 2022 17:31:42 IST
The piano playing of Derek Amato is a product of serious head trauma REBA MCCONNELL

Derek Amato stood above the shallow end of the swimming pool and called for his buddy in the Jacuzzi to toss him the football. Then he launched himself through the air headfirst, arms outstretched. The tips of Amato’s fingers brushed the ball— and he splashed through the water just before his head slammed into the pool’s concrete floor. He pushed to the surface, clapping his hands to his head, convinced that the water streaming down his cheeks was blood gushing from his ears.

At the edge of the pool, Amato collapsed into the arms of his friends Bill Peterson and Rick Sturm. It was 2006, and the 39-year-old sales trainer was visiting his hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from Denver, Colorado, where he lived. Amato’s mother rushed him to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed a severe concussion.

It would be weeks before the full impact of Amato’s head trauma became apparent: 35 per cent hearing loss in one ear, headaches, memory loss. But the most dramatic consequence appeared just five days after his accident. Amato awoke, feeling hazy after near- continuous sleep, and headed over to Sturm’s house. As the two pals chatted, Amato spotted an electric keyboard.

Without thinking, he rose from his chair and sat in front of it. He had never played the piano—he’d never had the slightest inclination to. Now his fingers seemed to find the keys by instinct and, to his astonishment, ripple across them. His right hand started low, climbing in lyrical chains of triads, skipping across melodic intervals and arpeggios, landing on the high notes and then starting low again and building back up. His left hand followed close behind, laying down bass, picking out harmony. Amato sped up, slowed down, let pensive tones hang in the air and resolved them into rich chords as if he had been playing for years. When Amato finally looked up, Sturm’s eyes were filled with tears.

Amato played for six hours, leaving Sturm’s house early the next morning with an unshakable feeling of wonder. He had fooled around with musical instruments in high school, even learnt a decent rhythm guitar. But nothing like this. Though he knew he hadn’t suddenly transformed into Thelonious Monk—he wasn’t that good—Amato had accessed a well of untapped creativity and ability he had never before touched; suddenly there was music rising up spontaneously from within him, coming out of his fingertips. How was this possible?

image-69_120522041339.jpgName: Derek Amato. Discovered Talent: Piano. Some scientists believe that Amato’s musical skill is evidence that untapped potential lies in everyone, accessible with the right tools.

Within days of his injury, Amato began searching the Internet for an explanation, typing in terms such as ‘gifted’ and ‘head trauma’. He found Dr Darold Treffert, an expert on savant syndrome, a condition in which individuals who are typically mentally impaired demonstrate remarkable skills. Amato sent off an email; soon he had answers. Dr Treffert, now retired from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, diagnosed Amato with acquired savant syndrome.

In the 90 or so known cases, ordinary people who’d suffered brain trauma suddenly developed what seemed like almost superhuman new abilities: artistic brilliance, mathematical mastery, photographic memory. Dr Treffert believes that our brains come with a wide array of “factory in- stalled” software—latent abilities that exist but that we sometimes don’t have access to. The exact nature of an acquired savant’s emergent abilities depends on the exact location of the injury. That explains the wide variation in both the range of abilities found in different individuals and their manifestations.

For Jason Padgett, a Tacoma, Washington, futon salesman, a head injury resulted in uncommon mathematical abilities. Padgett suffered a severe concussion after two men attacked him outside a karaoke bar in 2002. When he woke up, he saw pixelated patterns everywhere—in water spiralling down the drain, in sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees. In his high school days, Padgett had been a weightlifter and partyer who cheated on math tests and had little interest in academics. But after his accident, he began sketching intricate geometrical drawings, attempting to capture what he saw. Padgett did not understand their significance until a physicist happened to catch a glimpse of one of his sketches. He recognised them as highly sophisticated visual representations of complex mathematical relationships and urged Padgett to enroll in math classes.Today, Padgett is one of the few people capable of drawing fractals.

Orlando Serrell was hit on the left side of his head by a baseball when he was 10 and soon after realised he could remember precisely what he was doing and what the weather conditions were on any given day going back years.

As a young child, Alonzo Clemons suffered a severe brain trauma following a bad fall. He then developed a remarkable ability: After catching just a glimpse of an animal on television, he was able to sculpt an accurate 3D model. His lifelike animal sculptures have earned him worldwide renown.

Many acquired savants also have negative symptoms. Clemons never recovered from his accident. Today, he suffers from a developmental disability and has an IQ in the 40 to 50 range. Padgett developed symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder: He found himself washing his hands 20 times in an hour. Even so, these individuals speak of their new abilities with wonder.

How is it that a bump on the head can suddenly unleash the muse? And what does it mean for the rest of us?

Dr Bruce Miller, who codirects the University of California, San Francisco, Memory and Aging Center, treats elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. One day in the mid- 1990s, Dr Miller spoke with the son of a patient who said his father had developed a fixation with painting. Even stranger, as his father’s symptoms worsened, the man said, his father’s paintings improved. Dr Miller was dubious until the son sent him some samples. The work, Dr Miller recalls, was brilliant.

“The use of colour was striking,” Dr Miller says. “He had an obsession with yellow and purple.” Soon the patient, a brainy businessman with no previous artistic interests, had lost his grip on social norms: He was verbally repetitive, changed clothes in public, insulted strangers and shoplifted. But he was winning awards at local art shows.

By 2000, Dr Miller had identified 12 other patients who displayed unexpected new talents as their neurological degeneration continued. As dementia laid waste to brain regions associated with language, restraint and social etiquette, the patients’ artistic abilities exploded.

Though these symptoms defied conventional wisdom on brain disease in the elderly, Dr Miller realised they were consistent with savant syndrome. Savants often display an obsessive compulsion to perform their special skill, and they exhibit deficits in social and language behaviours, defects present in dementia patients. Dr Miller wondered whether there might be neurological similarities too.

He read the brain scan of a five-year- old autistic savant able to reproduce intricate scenes from memory. The scan revealed abnormal inactivity in the anterior temporal lobes of the left hemisphere—exactly the results he’d found in his dementia patients. Studies suggest that parts of the anterior acquired brainpower; they emerge be- cause, for the first time, the areas of the brain associated with the free flow of ideas can operate unchecked.

image-71_120522041540.jpgName: Alonzo Clemons. Discovered Talent: Sculpture. Savants such as Clemons can store vast amounts of information in their memory banks. Clemons can sculpt perfect 3-D animals after just glimpsing them on TV.

In the brains of dementia patients and some autistic savants, Dr Miller argued, the lack of inhibition in areas associated with creativity led to keen artistic expression and an almost compulsive urge to create. Derek Amato was no exception.

In the weeks after Amato’s accident, his mind raced—and his fingers wanted to move. He found himself tapping out patterns and waking up from naps with his fingers drumming against his legs. He bought a keyboard. Without one, he felt anxious, overstimulated. Only when he was able to sit down and play did he feel a deep sense of calm. He would shut himself in, sometimes for as long as three days, just him and the keyboard, exploring his new talent, trying to understand it and letting the music pour out of him.

Amato experienced other symptoms, many of them negative. Black and white squares appeared in his vision. He was plagued with headaches, as many as five a day. They made his head pound, and light and noise caused excruciating pain. One day, he collapsed in his brother’s bathroom. On another, he almost passed out while shopping.

Still, Amato’s feelings were unambiguous. He was certain he had been given a gift. The evidence lay not just in the ease he felt when he put his fingers on the keyboard but also in the drive he felt, the burning compulsion to play. He felt it in his heart: This was what he was meant to do.

image-72_120522041645.jpgName: Jason Padgett. Discovered Talent: Math. Following his injuries, Padgett, who took little interest in his math classes in high school, became one of the few people in the world able to draw complex geometric patterns called fractals.

Few people have followed the emergence of acquired savants with more interest than Allan Snyder, a neuroscientist at the University of Sydney in Australia. In 2012, as part of his research, Snyder and his colleagues gave 28 volunteers a geometric puzzle that has stumped laboratory subjects for more than 50 years. The challenge: Connect nine dots, arrayed in three rows of three, using four straight lines without retracing a line or lifting the pen. None of the subjects could solve the problem. Then Snyder and his colleagues attached electrodes to the heads of subjects and used painless direct electrical currents to temporarily immobilise the left anterior temporal lobe— the area of the brain destroyed by dementia in Miller’s acquired savants. At the same time, they stimulated areas in the right anterior temporal lobe, making the neurons that were more active in the dementia patients—the ones associated with creativity—more likely to fire.

This time, more than 40 per cent of the participants in Snyder’s experiment solved the problem. The experiment, Snyder argues, supports the theory that acquired savants blossom once brain areas normally held in check have become unfettered, meaning that savants can access raw sensory information normally off limits to the conscious mind. When a non-musician hears music, he or she perceives the big picture: melodies. Amato, Snyder says, hears individual notes. It’s the difference between just hearing a symphony and being able to pick out the flute. Bruce Miller’s dementia patients have artistic skills because they are drawing what they see: details and not simply broad strokes.

Psychologist and neuroscientist Jon Kaas of Vanderbilt University says our tendency to “see the big picture”—to look at a bunch of trees and see a forest—makes evolutionary sense. If we allowed ourselves to get caught up in details and not the overall picture, we could get hopelessly and dangerously distracted. We might get hung up, for instance, on the shining eyes or intricate tangle of hair on the head of the big animal by the watering hole—instead of realising it’s a lion that might eat us for dinner and that we’d better run.

“If you are in a semi-dangerous environment, it’s important to be aware of what’s changing,” Kaas says. “You don’t want to get distracted or lost in the details.”

Musical renown has yet to follow for Amato, though he did release an album, performed with the famed jazz-fusion guitarist Stanley Jordan, and was asked to write the score for a Japanese documentary. Still, the former anonymous sales trainer is an inspirational symbol of human possibility for music lovers dreaming of grander things. Savant expert Dr Treffert, neuroscientist Snyder and others spoke enthusiastically about unravelling the phenomenon of acquired savantism in order to one day enable all of us to explore our hidden talents. The Derek Amatos of the world provide a glimpse of that goal—untapped human potential lies in everyone.

I wanted to hear Amato for myself, in person. Was he really a musical genius? He agreed to play for me. As he sat down at the piano, he quickly relaxed.

He closed his eyes, placed his foot on one of the pedals, and began. The music that gushed forth was full of flowery trills, swelling and sweeping up and down the keys in waves of cascading notes—a sticky, emotional kind of mu- sic appropriate for the romantic climax of a movie like From Here to Eternity. It seemed strangely out of character for a man whose sartorial choices bring to mind an ’80s heavy metal band.

Still, it seemed that Amato had somehow found a place inside himself he did not have access to before. In his playing, there was expression, melody and undeniable skill. And if this could emerge spontaneously in Amato, who’s to say what potential might lie dormant in the rest of us?




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