Prodigies are usually born to their talent but in unusual cases, some people who suffer catastrophic brain injuries awake from a coma to find they have acquired a miraculous talent for art, languages, music, or mathematics – or just about any other skill available to the human race.
Being a savant is usually associated with conditions which are on the autism spectrum – many artists and authors from past generations are now thought to have been born with conditions related to autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome, which can mean an individual focuses on detail and logic to an extent which may appear excessive to someone without the syndrome.
Acknowledged geniuses like the artist Michelangelo, as well as Einstein and Jane Austen, are now of interest to researchers looking into variations on the autism spectrum and how these conditions affect the brain and emotional behavior – those with Asperger’s, a mild form of autism, may have difficulty in reading social situations and responding as others do.
The fact that people who have suffered brain injury sometimes wake up with new talents like art or languages also suggests that injury to a particular area of the brain which controls language, emotions, and expression – the right side – might lead to these skills and talents being triggered.
The most notable recent case involved a 40-year-old diver from Denver, Colorado, who suffered a serious head injury during a dive in 2006 – and woke up to find he was a musical prodigy, having never played the piano before in his life.
Derek Amato describes the impact to his head as “like a bomb going off” – and he is now just one of 30 such individuals known as “acquired savants”.
Derek had only tinkered on a guitar previously but suffered a concussion, serious damage to his hearing, and some memory loss after the accident.
When visiting a pianist friend a few days later, he suddenly began visualizing notes and music – and was so drawn to the piano that he sat down and played brilliantly until 2 am.
Individuals with severe mental disability or learning difficulties often have an outstanding gift and this has led researchers to refer to this as “an island of genius”.
Leading US researcher Dr. Darold Treffert points out that savant syndrome is always associated with “a massive memory” – for example, although Derek Amato suffered a memory loss in his diving accident, music subsequently came to him as black and white structures in “a fluid and continuous stream of musical notation”.
Dr. Treffert – who researches into savant syndrome – is of the opinion that after a catastrophic or even relatively minor head injury such as concussion, the brain rewires itself “in ways we can’t imagine” to compensate for the injury; which means for some unsuspecting patients with brain injury, they turn into geniuses.
In the case of Derek Amato, he is now a professional musician and composer. However, many young adults are no suffering from catastrophic brain injury as a result of accidents or medical negligence – and many experience life-changing injuries as a result of holiday accidents and alcohol.
The UK government is currently campaigning to raise awareness of young adults suffering from brain injury abroad, many of whom will not awake from a coma with new talent.