Savants are people who display extraordinary abilities, sometimes far exceeding what we might think of as normal. These abilities can include exceptional memory recall, lightning calculation ability and uncanny artistic skill. Certain cases have attracted the attention of the media, even the 1988 film Rain Man was inspired by a real figure, and the field is subject to constant scientific research and debate.
Among the most amazing cases in this area are “acquired savants”, individuals left with extraordinary abilities following a brain injury or central nervous system trauma. The leading American authority on savant syndrome, Dr Darold Treffert, believes that there are probably fewer than fifty living prodigious savants, that is, those whose gifts would appear incredible in anyone. Yet, while some of these acquired abilities continue to amaze and baffle, Dr Treffert is not alone in thinking that such cases may point to untapped abilities in all of us. Read on to find out what these might be.
10. Eadweard Muybridge
Nineteenth-century pioneer Eadweard Muybridge may conjure up images of the silhouetted horses with which he startled audiences in the 1880s, and which proved how our equine friends gallop. Yet, ironically, those very same quadrupeds may have played a key role in giving up their secrets, for in 1860 a stagecoach accident left Muybridge with serious head injuries.
Studying photography during his five years of recuperation certainly shaped the young man’s future, but experts such as Professor Arthur Shimamura have suggested that Muybridge’s injuries may have boosted his creative ability. The impact of the head trauma was near impossible to discern at the time, and certainly impossible to treat. Without doubt, though, erratic episodes and dark chapters dogged Muybridge throughout his later years, not least his shooting dead the man whom he suspected of fathering his young wife’s child.
Muybridge is often characterized as having had an obsessive drive while excelling in business, but it may have been that one accident that secured his enduring impact on 20th-century modern art and film.
9. Ken Walters
Eadweard Muybridge is certainly not the only reported case of someone experiencing a boost in his creative powers after enduring a head trauma. For 19 years, former engineer Ken Walters was wheelchair-bound following an accident involving a forklift truck, and the outlook seemed even bleaker in 2005 when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Diagnosed as having suffered a stroke, Walters underwent speech therapy and worked to overcome his partial paralysis. His doctors suggested that his brain may well have “rewired” itself to avoid damaged areas, but Walters was amazed when he discovered “the biggest passion I’ve ever had in my life.”
Although, following his stroke, he lacked the strength to do anything more than pick up a pencil, Walters, who had never before been artistic, was soon converting his doodles into incredible digital images. Later, he developed his own software and a business selling his images online. This in turn attracted the attentions of American gaming giant EA, for whom he has since done work. After years of adversity, the stroke may have been, in Walters’s words, “the biggest blessing in disguise I ever could have wished for.”
8. Alonzo Clemons
Colorado-based sculptor Alonzo Clemons has achieved international recognition for his incredibly realistic animal sculptures, which can sell for thousands of dollars. Remarkably, his pieces are often completed in under an hour, and sometimes completely from memory. But perhaps the most amazing aspect of Clemons’s story is that this talent almost went unnoticed. Severely disabled by a head injury he sustained as a young boy, Clemons could neither feed nor dress himself. And yet he is described by Dr Treffert as one of the “25 prodigious savants living at the present time.”
His incredible artistic abilities are in stark contrast to his disability, and over the years he has developed not only these abilities but also his independence in the face of adversity. He continues to sculpt, but he is also an active community member in his town of Boulder and has even competed in power lifting at the Special Olympics.
7. Anne Adams
Of course, not all head trauma leads to special abilities, and it can sometimes have a lasting effect on individuals and their families. One notable example of the strange yet distressing effects brain damage can have is that of Dr Anne Adams. Dr Adams was a trained scientist who, seemingly out of nowhere, made a life-changing decision: she gave up science and turned to art, yet did so creating paintings that were simultaneously scientific and artistic.
It was only later that Dr Adams was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative disease that damages the frontal and sometimes temporal lobes of the brain. Researchers have found that as these areas of the brain become compromised, other parts can strengthen and dominate, a common effect of which is the growth of creative abilities.
Productive as they made her, Adams’s skills were nevertheless a symptom, and she died from the condition in 2007. Intriguingly, Adams had also became fascinated by the composer Ravel, and created at least one artistic work that attempted to “translate” his music. Ravel himself suffered a head injury in the 1930s, with some suggested that he may have developed frontotemporal dementia as well.
6. Sandy Allen
Some of the most striking examples of acquired savant syndrome occur when a person switches their leanings entirely, from science to art, for instance. As with Dr Anne Adams, Sandy Allen’s taste had always been science, utilizing the left side of the brain, believed to govern logical processes. So inclined, she enrolled at medical school at the age of 40.
However, within three years, Allen received life-changing news: there was a malignant tumor in her left temporal lobe that required surgery. This was not a degenerative disorder, but, in operating, doctors were forced to remove part of the left side of her brain. It was as if, as Allen described the situation, “it turned on the right side of my brain.” Allen suddenly found herself prolifically creating collages and surrounding herself with self-created furnishings, and it’s interesting to note that both her mother and sister are talented artists. Allen’s case appears to be a key example of the brain’s capacity to unlock previously hidden talents.
5. Alison Silva
Artist Alison Silva had long been fascinated with the fantastical, but her own life darkened in 2006 when she suffered a cavernous malformation hemorrhage in the left temporal lobe of her brain. Silva subsequently suffered crippling migraines, seizures and disturbing visions. Her condition, which could bring about a deadly hemorrhage at any time, left her with an unenviable decision: operate or not.
Ultimately, Silva decided not to proceed with the operation, partly inspired by the role neurological conditions had played in the lives of many of her creative idols, including Lewis Carroll. Choosing her ability first, Silva has said, “I’ve always felt like I was in wonderland, but this time around I was forced to go through the looking glass into my own reality.”
4. Derek Amato
Acquired savants have gained a variety of abilities, from artistic talents to language skills. When Derek Amato was 40, he dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool, hitting his head on the bottom. Along with concussion-related side effects, including amnesia, Amato discovered a previously unknown musical gift.
He described being drawn to a keyboard one night and visualizing “a fluid and continuous stream of musical notation” in his mind. He played until 2am, engrossed in an instrument he had never before touched. Neurological tests were later broadcast by the Science Channel, and he was diagnosed as one of the few acquired savants in the world. Again, there is a reminder that such cases carry consequences: Amato has described the hearing loss and headaches that followed his accident as a “price tag” for his gift.
3. Kim Peek
Few people have helped raise the awareness of savantism like Kim Peek, even if he did so indirectly. Peek may have been the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man, but while the film portrayed him as autistic, Peek is actually thought to have suffered from FG syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can cause physical abnormalities.
Peek was renowned for his exceptional memory, he was able to recall zip codes or calendar dates in seconds, but the root cause of his abilities syndrome is believed to have been damage to his corpus callosum: the loss of the bundle of connective nerves between the two hemispheres of his brain. Scientists have speculated that the resultant unusual connections in his brain physically created an extraordinary memory capacity.
Interestingly, while the film’s portrayal certainly differed from his own life, Rain Man nonetheless changed Peek’s life. Prior to his death in 2009, his newfound fame helped improve his social abilities, as well as educating people about the lives and abilities of people with special needs.
2. Orlando Serrell
In England in the 1780s, Jedediah Buxton, a farmer who could not read or write, became renowned as a kind of “human calculator,” able to mentally calculate at breakneck speeds and with an incredible memory to boot. There’s no evidence that Buxton acquired this ability after his birth, but 200 years later and across the Atlantic, one Orlando Serrell seemed to develop the same ability after an incident that took place during a childhood game.
While the 10-year-old Serrell was playing baseball in 1979, the ball hit him on the left side of his head as he made a dash for first base, causing him to fall to the floor. Eager to keep playing, he did not report what had happened and so did not receive medical treatment. But, after the resulting headaches eventually subsided, Serrell noticed a hitherto undetected ability to make lightning-fast mental calculations involving extremely complex figures. He’s also reportedly able to remember what the weather was like, and what his activities were, on every single day since that fateful baseball game.
1. Daniel Tammet
Of all the abilities displayed by acquired savants, linguistic skills may be among the most remarkable. Indeed, articles on xenoglossy (a rather derisory term for the ability to suddenly speak an unfamiliar language) seem to regularly appear in newspapers. Notwithstanding, Briton Daniel Tammet not only learned Icelandic in seven days, to add to the alleged 10 other languages he has learned, but also established his own educational language website.
What’s more, this linguistic prowess is by no means the only ability of Tammet’s, who suffered epileptic seizures during childhood. He has described how he started seeing numbers as shapes and colors following a fit he had at the age of three and is able to make incredibly complex calculations at lightning speeds. He even broke the European record for reciting Pi from memory in 2004, managing 22,514 digits in five hours. In addition, Tammet has written two best-selling books, which have appeared in at least 20 languages. Included in Dr Treffert’s select list prodigious savants, Tammet may well display the widest range of extraordinary abilities found in people who have this rare condition, at least, among those dealt with in this list.