Savantism: A Rare Side Effect of Head Trauma

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Getting smacked in the head is no picnic, as most football players, hockey players, and boxers would attest. Debilitating side effects such as headaches, memory loss, depression, and fatigue can swiftly follow suit. Moreover, recent research has shown that just a single brain trauma can precipitate the development of Alzheimer's Disease later in life.

But, in rare cases, a mild to severe head injury can cause one to develop extraordinary, almost superhuman abilities. It's a condition called acquired savant syndrome.

Now, before you go running for the nearest baseball bat with the intention of jarring your brain into a state of genius, know that the condition only has been documented a mere thirty times. Chances are, bashing your head will only leave you with a goose egg.

shutterstock_84571489.jpgFor those afflicted with savant syndrome, however, brain trauma irrevocably changed their lives.

After being mugged and brutally beaten, college-dropout Jason Padgett gained a unique aptitude for envisioning mathematical formulas. He now channels this novel skill into crafting beautiful works of art.

While batting in a baseball game, ten-year-old Orlando Serrell was struck by a pitch in the left side of his head. Despite a ringing headache that lasted for days, the resilient young Serrell thought little of the event and didn't even seek medical attention. But when his pain subsided, Serrell noticed that he had gained a peculiar skill: he could calendar calculate. Give him any date since his accident - which occurred in August 1979 -- and he can instantly tell you the day of the week and what the weather was like.

Slightly more amazing than Padgett's or Serrell's case is that of Derek Amato. A few days after diving headfirst into the bottom of a shallow pool, an act which sent him to the hospital with a concussion, Amato was over at a friend's house and found himself inexplicably drawn to the living room piano. Before his head trauma, Amato had never played an instrument seriously, but on this fateful day he sat down and began striking the keys like a virtuoso. He has since recorded his own album of original compositions and has plans to release another.

Dr. Andrew Reeves, a neurologist who examined Amato, told the Mankato Free Press that head trauma can cause neurological damage to such a degree that it prompts re-wiring of brain circuits. When this happens, a dormant talent can be awoken.

University of Wisconsin psychiatrist Dr. Darold Treffert is the preeminent expert on acquired savant syndrome. He says that some form of injury to the left anterior temporal lobe is the most common driver of the condition. Interestingly, such an injury likely serves only as a "release." In other words, we all may have savant-like abilities locked away inside us, waiting for the right kind of stimuli to unleash them.

"The challenge of course, if that is so, is how to access that hidden

knowledge and skill without some sort of Central Nervous System catastrophe," Treffert says. "And work to

achieve just that is now underway."

We recently heard about one such method, a creativity thinking cap that applies a weak electrical current to the scalp. The cap, created by neuroscientist Allan Snyder, appeared to help subjects solve a rudimentary thinking problem.

In the longer term, the effort to unlock humanity's inner savant will likely turn to genetics. If a genetic key to genius is found, a heated ethical debate will almost certainly unfold. Such a method would undoubtedly be far more controversial than the current, much less effective strategy of acquiring savant abilities: a high-speed knock to the noggin.

(Image: Head Punch via Shutterstock)

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