One rainy day in 1994, a forty-two-year-old man named Tony Cicoria was making a call to his mother with a payphone and had just stepped out of the phone booth when he was struck by lightning. His heart stopped as he saw his own body lying face-down on the ground, surrounded by bluish-white light before he snapped back into reality, aware of the burns across his face and left foot–the woman waiting for the phone behind him, coincidentally an intensive-care nurse, had resuscitated him and saved his life. Besides the pain and temporary memory loss, the man suffered no other ill effects. After a few weeks, however, he found himself with the insatiable desire to listen to piano music–something that had never interested him in the past–and a few weeks after that, he began to hear a constant torrent of music in his head which he felt compelled to translate to his newly-acquired piano. While he continued his original job in orthopedic medicine, he now feels consistently possessed by a need to compose music.
While this sort of sudden genius is clearly rare, it is something that has occurred repeatedly, and does have a name: “Acquired Savant Syndrome.” This condition usually involves an individual with no previous disabilities who suffers an extreme brain injury that, instead of leading to an extreme debilitation or death, leads to sudden genius in a particular area. This “inspiration” can be expressed in strange ways such as the obsessive preoccupation with and memorization of vacuum cleaner motor sounds, but most often, it is either in music, math, art, or calendar calculating. For example, in 1979, a ten-year-old boy named Orlando Serrell was knocked unconscious by a baseball on the left side of his head. He later got up and continued playing, and was fine except for a period of headaches. After the accident, however, he was able to remember what the weather was like and what he did on any given date. Another example is Jason Padgett, who in 2002 was robbed and beaten outside of a karaoke bar, and later found himself obsessed with mathematical patterns and able to draw complex fractals by hand, including the one shown above.
How exactly these people were rewired by their brain injuries is still unknown. However, the underlying common denominator seems to be a traumatic injury to the left hemisphere of the brain, usually a left anterior temporal lobe injury. The right hemisphere of the brain then compensates for the damage with new abilities that the individual didn’t express before. Because these new abilities seem to be newly released, not newly created, scientists are wondering if we all could possess similar levels of genius that we are unable to tap into. Or perhaps it’s the brain’s defense system working for us–do we really want to be woken up at four in the morning like Cicoria with the insuppressible need to write sonatas, or, like Padgett, develop the compulsion to dip our toothbrushes into the tap water sixteen times because it’s a square number? What can be said with certainty, however, is that attempting to achieve genius-level skill by purposely causing brain damage would be not only unethical but also downright stupid–these occurrences are exceptional because they are exceptions to the general rule that damage is damaging. So please, please, do not try this at home, and when thunder roars, go indoors.
Image credit: www.bbc.com/future/article/20190411-the-violent-attack-that-turned-a-man-into-a-maths-genius