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Brain Gain: A Person Can Instantly Blossom into a Savant—and No One Knows Why
Some people suddenly become accomplished artists or musicians with no previous interest or training. Is it possible innate genius lies dormant within everyone?
Darold A. Treffert
Photo by WilliamSherman / Getty Images.
Savant syndrome comes in different forms. In congenital savant syndrome the extraordinary savant ability surfaces in early childhood. In acquired savant syndrome astonishing new abilities, typically in music, art or mathematics, appear unexpectedly in ordinary persons after a head injury, stroke or other central nervous system (CNS) incident where no such abilities or interests were present pre-incident.
But in sudden savant syndrome an ordinary person with no such prior interest or ability and no precipitating injury or other CNS incident has an unanticipated, spontaneous epiphanylike moment where the rules and intricacies of music, art or mathematics, for example, are experienced and revealed, producing almost instantaneous giftedness and ability in the affected area of skill sets. Because there is no underlying disability such as that which occurs in congenital or acquired savant syndromes, technically sudden savant syndrome would be better termed sudden genius.
The Case of K. A.
A 28-year-old gentleman from Israel, K. A., sent his description of his epiphany moment. He was in a mall where there was a piano. Whereas he could play simple popular songs from rote memory before, “suddenly at age 28 after what I can best describe as a ‘just getting it moment,’ it all seemed so simple. I suddenly was playing like a well-educated pianist.” His friends were astonished as he played and suddenly understood music in an entirely intricate way. “I suddenly realized what the major scale and minor scale were, what their chords were and where to put my fingers in order to play certain parts of the scale. I was instantly able to recognize harmonies of the scales in songs I knew as well as the ability to play melody by interval recognition.” He began to search the internet for information on music theory and to his amazement “most of what they had to teach I already knew, which baffled me as to how could I know something I had never studied.”
K. A. has a high IQ, is now an attorney and has no history of any developmental disorder. He makes part of his living now doing musical performances.
The Case of M. F.
This 43-year-old woman woke up one night December 2016 with what she called “the urgent need to draw a multitude of triangles, which quickly evolved to a web of complex abstract designs. I stayed up into the morning with a compulsive need to draw, which continued over the next three days at an intense level.” She had no prior interest or training in art. By the third day she was working on a piece of art she named “the Mayan,” which took her two weeks to complete. Three months later she had created 15 pieces whose styles were reminiscent of artists including Frida Kahlo and Picasso. She presently spends about eight hours a day on her craft in addition to her work as a real estate agent. Incorporated into most of her pieces of art is mandalic style of which she was totally unaware prior to her sudden art ability.
The Case of S. S.
When she was in her mid-40s, S. S. began noticing changes in her perception of the physical world around her. She said when she looked at things like trees and flowers, she started to see colors, textures and shadows in ways she had never seen before. This new way of seeing things compelled her to express her “new vision” on paper. She had never painted before in her life and was not comfortable with a paintbrush, so she bought a cheap set of pastel pencils at Hobby Lobby, found a photograph of a gorilla on the cover of an old National Geographic magazine, and sat down to draw it. The result—a rich, complex pastel painting with uncanny realism—stunned her friends and family, particularly in light of the fact she had never shown an aptitude for art or even an interest for that matter, and she never took an art class growing up.
From that point forward drawing and pastel painting began to consume her every waking moment. Her “new vision” wouldn’t allow her to just sit around and marvel at the beauty of this “new” world. She felt she had to act on it—she must act on it. From the very beginning this gift of seeing things in a new way was inextricably tied to a compulsive desire to reproduce that new world on paper. It became an obsession that all but took over her life. “I found it nearly impossible to put down my pastels and do things I needed to do,” she stated, “I was spending way too much money at Hobby Lobby and art supply stores. I was almost frenzied.”
Even now, when she needs to focus on other more pressing things in her life, S. S. must put the pastels and art aside and store them away in a place where she is not tempted by them, sometimes for months at a time. She worries that “starting a new painting could completely derail her.” In the case of S. S., as with other cases of sudden genius, there is no history of autism or CNS injury.
The Uniqueness of Sudden Genius
Many people pick up a new skill or hobby, especially later in life. So what is different here?
—The skill has an abrupt onset with no prior interest in or talent for the newly acquired ability.
—There is no obvious precipitating event or CNS injury or disease.
—The new skill is automatically coupled with a detailed, epiphany-type knowledge of the underlying rules of music, art or math, for example—none of which the person has studied. They know things without ever having learned them.
—The new skill is accompanied with an obsessive-compulsive (OCD) component; there is the overpowering need to play music, draw or compute. It is as much a force as a gift, as is usually the case with both congenital and acquired savant syndromes.
—There is a fear the gift and OCD is evidence of losing one’s mind, and a tendency to hide the new ability from others rather than display it.
—I have 14 such cases now. Ten are female and four are male. Age of onset of the new skill averages 47.2 years. The new skill was art, painting or drawing in nine cases; mathematics or calendar-calculating in four; music in one.
These cases came to my attention via unsolicited e-mails by people seeking explanation or advice from internet searches. We are in the process of exploring these cases further with a detailed survey instrument.
Daniel Tammet, a prodigious savant, is author of Born on a Blue Day. The way Daniel can describe his inner world so articulately has given scientists a personal, verbal window into the brain that they never had before. In a documentary filmed at the Milwaukee Art Museum he states: “The line between profound talent and profound disability seems to be really a surprisingly thin one. Who knows there may be abilities hidden within everyone that can be tapped in some way.”
Indeed, the acquired savant particularly, and now the sudden savant, reinforce the idea that not only is the line between savant and genius a very narrow one but also underscores the possibility such savant abilities may be dormant, to one degree or another, in all of us. The challenge is to tap those special abilities without head injury or CNS incident but rather with some nonintrusive, more readily available methods.
We are working on that.
Darold A. Treffert, a psychiatrist, met his first savant in 1962 and continues research on savant syndrome at the Treffert Center in Fond du Lac, Wis. He was a consultant for the 1988 movie Rain Man and maintains a Web page with information about savant syndrome.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.