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A Dormant Genius: Acquired Savant Syndrome
Maybe one day perhaps humans will be able to explore and uncover the hidden potential subconsciously present within.
28 February, 2021

There are a handful of people in the world who have extraordinary abilities in fields such as music, art, or mathematics. But imagine if one day a fatal incident leads to the awakening of these abilities? That is known as Acquired Savant Syndrome.

Savant syndrome is a rare condition where an individual with autism, mental handicaps, or major mental illness can gain extraordinary abilities. It can be congenital (present from birth) or it can be acquired later in life through major trauma of the brain. The savant skills do not fade or disappear; they’re rather a pattern of replication extending to improvisation and creation. This syndrome usually involves inhibiting the left frontotemporal region of the brain which controls language comprehension, execution of behaviour, and attention while promoting the activity of the right frontotemporal region which controls musical intelligence, auditory and spatial processing, concept formation and personality to build up the savant skills. However, due to the syndrome’s effects on the temporal lobe, the brain is vulnerable to seizures, in a condition known as Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Only around 100 savants are living today, out of which 30 are acquired savants.

The savant skills are narrowed down to five general categories: music, art, calendar calculating, mathematics and mechanical or spatial skills. The most common feature of someone who has savant syndrome however, is superior memory. They can remember large amounts of information and accurately recall past experiences with their corresponding dates (not to be confused with hyperthymesia – perfect recall). Calendar calculation is the ability to identify the day of the week that a particular date falls upon. Some savants can also show exceptional skills in musical and artistic abilities. For example, they can play the piano without being taught, create highly detailed sculptures, or have exceptional drawing skills. Very rarely does a person develop a language ability, where they are unusually gifted in linguistics (in extremely rare circumstances with minimal training in that particular language). Savants in mechanical or spatial skills can measure distances precisely without the use of any measuring equipment and can also be exceptionally accurate at direction finding and mapmaking.

The earliest observed case of acquired savant syndrome is from the 1880’s. An English-American photographer, Eadweard Muybridge was travelling across the East Coast of America when he suffered serious injuries in a stagecoach accident. At that time there was no brain imaging technology, so after Muybridge recovered it was considered that he had a closed brain injury. He reported seeing one image through each eye, such that if he saw a man in front, he sees double. After the accident he changed his behaviour, becoming more outgoing and pursuing a career in photography. With his newfound artistic skills, he created the world’s first ‘gif’, called ‘The Horse in Motion’.

Another case is of Orlando Serrell. When he was 10 years old, he was struck by a baseball on the left side of his head. He briefly lost consciousness and once he awoke, he continued to play the game. He suffered a few headaches after that, which after dissipating led him to find that he could perform exceptional calendrical calculations, including exactly remembering the weather for each day ever since the accident. He did not possess any special skills before the accident, and so was considered a prodigious savant. He went on to appear in a documentary on Discovery Channel in 2003.

Another acquired savant was established in Alaska in 2002, when a man named Jason Padgett was attacked and robbed by two men. He was hit in the back of the head and punched in the gut. He was rushed to the hospital and his CT scan showed a profound concussion. Before the incident he was a struggling futon salesman, but after the incident began a sudden math and art career. Due to his head injury, he’d developed a fascination with mathematics and physics, focusing on fractals (complex patterns such that if the shape is divided into smaller pieces, nearly identical reduced-sized copies of the whole are formed) and pi. Currently, he makes art that is based on such fractal diagrams. 

A more recent case was reported in 2006, when Derek Amato was diagnosed with acquired musical savant syndrome after suffering a major concussion from diving into a shallow swimming pool. Weeks after the incident, he suffered from mild hearing loss in one ear, headaches and accompanying memory loss. The most predominant change however, was that he could flawlessly play the piano. Amato never learned how to play the piano and he couldn’t read music, but that accident has led him to pursue a career as a composer and pianist. 

Though quite rare, acquired savant syndrome is a scientifically fascinating syndrome. In the past 20 years more research has been done into understanding this syndrome. It is still a mystery of how all these remarkable people gained these amazing abilities. Maybe one day perhaps humans will be able to explore and uncover the hidden potential subconsciously present within.

3 Comments

  1. Charles

    Great article! You touched upon an important distinction among savants. They’re often misattributed as having perfect memories like tape recorders. However, they don’t merely regurgitate; their brilliance relies on their extraordinary abilities to process patterns and familiar structures. In David Epstein’s book, he describes brilliantly Treffert’s research into the unique prowess and the limitations of savants.

    Reply
  2. Barbara

    If it’s a fatal accident, the person in question would be dead.

    Reply
    • Barbara

      Sorry, you wrote incident, not accident. I would usually expect the use of the word fatal to mean that the person has died. Presumably you understand the word to convey something else but I’ve never heard it used to mean anything other than death.

      Reply

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