Recovering from a brain injury is often a very long and difficult process. Patients have to relearn even the most basic tasks like talking and walking, so the idea of embracing a new skill in the meantime seems pretty unlikely. However, there have been some rare cases throughout history where people have recovered from severe brain injuries to discover an incredible silver lining; they have somehow developed an amazing new talent they didn’t have before their accident or illness.
This phenomenon is known as Acquired Savant Syndrome, and is extremely rare; a 2010 study by Darold Treffert found just 32 known cases. Although scientists aren’t sure of the exact cause of the syndrome, it is thought to originate from damage to the left anterior temporal lobe – the area responsible for processing sensory input, as well as recognizing objects.
Whatever the science behind it, the syndrome has been responsible for changing the lives of these 15 people in the most strange and unexpected ways — read on to discover their unbelievable journeys from brain damage to genius.
15. Ben McMahon – Mandarin
In 2012, 22-year-old Australian Ben McMahon was involved in a severe car crash that left him in a week-long coma. Thankfully, he made a full recovery after his ordeal, although he was left with a seemingly bizarre new skill; he was now fluent in Mandarin.
After waking from his coma and seeing a nurse of Asian appearance at his bedside he said in the language: ‘Hi, it really hurts here… what happened to me?’. He then took a piece of paper and wrote in Mandarin: ‘I love my mum, I love my dad, I will recover.’
Although Ben had studied the language in high school he was never fluent until after his accident. His parents were worried that they too would have to learn the notoriously tricky language, but Ben took his new found talent in his stride, saying: ‘In Chinese there is an idiom that goes along the line of, “from a tragedy comes something great”.
14. Franco Magnani – Painting From Memory
After being struck by a mysterious illness during the 1960s, Italian immigrant Franco Magnani experienced extreme bouts of fever that then lead to seizures. Although, fortunately, he managed to shake the illness, he was left with strange vision-like dreams centered around his hometown of Pontito, Italy.
Despite not having visited the town for more than 30 years, Franco was able to vividly recall its buildings and landmarks, which he then began to paint. His art eventually caught the eye of experts, who exhibited it in galleries with photos of the actual sites for comparison. The results were remarkable — through his illness, Franco had obviously somehow managed to unlock distant memories from his childhood.
83-year-old Franco has now retired and no longer showcases his work in exhibits. However, his incredible memory paintings are set to feature in a museum, so people will be able to catch a glimpse of his bizarre, yet genius gift once more.
13. Tony Cicoria – Piano
One of the best known cases of acquired savant syndrome is that of Tony Cicoria, who was struck by lightning in 1994. The 42-year-old had just finished using a public payphone when the bolt struck his body and stopped his heart. In a fortuitous twist, the woman waiting to use the phone was an intensive care nurse who managed to resuscitate him. He later said that he had seen his body on the ground surrounded by bluish-white light.
During his recovery period, Tony became obsessed with piano music. He bought himself a piano and even taught himself to play, composing pieces that seemed to already be in his head, despite the fact he had never had any great interest in music before the accident. After several months he was spending all of his time writing and practicing music. He debuted his first composition on October 12, 2007, and since then has given many more recitals and appeared in numerous magazines and TV programs.
12. Jason Padgett – Math Genius
Although someone recovering from a brain injury to suddenly become a math genius may seem like the plot of a Hollywood movie, in the case of Jason Padgett. it’s absolutely true.
In 2002 Jason, a self-confessed jock and heavy partier, was brutally attacked outside a bar, leaving him with a serious concussion. Despite his ordeal, it wasn’t all bad news — when Jason recovered he found himself able to visualize complicated mathematical objects and physics concepts with ease.
“I see shapes and angles everywhere in real life.” He said. “It’s just really beautiful.”
After he began putting these geometric shapes onto paper, he was encouraged by a physicist to take up math studies, and is now in college with the aim of becoming a number theorist. He has also caught the attention of various neuroscientists who have been eager to study his brain in order to understand exactly how he got his new expertise.
11. Tommy McHugh – Poetry
Tommy McHugh was a builder and former petty criminal with little interest in art – that was until a severe stroke on both sides of his brain changed his life forever. Thanks to the stroke, at the age of 51 Tommy was forced to relearn how to walk, talk and feed himself. As he embarked on this daunting challenge he suddenly had an urge to start writing poetry as a way to express everything he was going through.
The stroke had not only given him an appreciation for prose — it had actually made him develop a whole new artistic personality, and it was developing into something of an obsession; “The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write, it was like a drug” he said.
10. Ken Walters – Graphic Art
Ken Walters had already suffered a run of bad luck – including a broken back, financial ruin and two heart attacks – before his stroke in 2005. Bedridden and paralyzed down one side, he used a pen and pad to communicate. However, it wasn’t long before his hand started to sketch patterns, almost by its own accord.
He told The Guardian: “I’ve never been a doodler. The closest I’d come was copying a cartoon as a child, and I hadn’t drawn since. That’s why it was so strange. The act was unconscious; only when a nurse asked me what I was doing did I look down to see patterns all over the paper.”
Ken now works as a professional artist, creating pieces of art for top companies such as IBM and Java. He’s also been featured in numerous art magazines and has had his work displayed in various galleries.
9. Patient X – Piano
At the start of the 20th century there was a young male patient in a sanitarium, known only as ‘X’ in medical journals. Once a talented child who was able to sing songs in four languages and was starting to learn the piano aged just three.
However, after contracting pneumonia and meningitis he was left with a developmental disorder which meant that when he was brought to the hospital; aged 23 he had the mental age of a seven-year-old.
While at the hospital, his doctors began to notice Patient X’s incredible talent for recalling music. After hearing a song just once he would be able to play it perfectly, and it would then be stored away in his mind, able to be recalled immediately at any time. Despite his musical genius, Patient X was never able to compose his own pieces, but he had plenty to choose from in his mental catalogue.
8. Orlando Serrell – Calendar Calculations
Orlando Serrell was just an ordinary 10-year-old boy before an accident left him with a new superpower of sorts. After being hit on the side of the head by a baseball during a game on August 17, 1979, he fell to the ground but got up and continued playing. He never received any medical treatment for the injury as he didn’t mention the incident to his parents, but he suffered with headaches for a long time afterwards.
Thankfully, the headaches eventually subsided, and not long after, Orlando noticed he had somehow developed an amazing ability; he was able to do complicated calendar calculations, for example recalling the day of the week after being given a specific date. He is also now able to recall what the weather was like on any day since the accident, as well as where he was and what he was doing on that day.
7. Jon Sarkin – Art
After developing tinnitus (a ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis (oversensitivity to certain sound frequencies) in 1988, Jon Sarkin, then in his mid-thirties, decided to undergo surgery to fix the problem a year later. However, the operation caused him to suffer a stroke afterwards, and in the process he was left with an unexpected new talent.
Jon had become completely fixated on drawing. Though the chiropractor had made sketches in the past, they were very focused and ordered, mainly puns and visual jokes. Now his pieces were much more chaotic and unusual; mainly distorted cartoon faces, often with overlapped features.
His new talent has certainly changed his life for the better; his artwork has been in numerous galleries and now typically sells for $10,000 USD or more. What’s more, Tom Cruise’s production company are said to be developing a movie based on the artist’s intriguing life story.
6. Woman X – Picture-Perfect Memory
In an anonymous essay written for xoJane in 2015, a woman explained how she had developed a remarkable gift after a ski accident. Despite hitting the ground hard, the woman hadn’t sought medical treatment right away, and even went on skiing. However, when she did eventually visit a doctor two days later she was found to have a mild concussion as well as a dislocated shoulder and broken collarbone.
As she was recovering, however, she began to notice something wasn’t quite right; “The thing I kept bringing up was my memory,” she said. “I kept telling my neurologist that I could remember too much, it wasn’t right… I could remember everywhere, like flicking through the pages of a book. Every place I had ever been, but specifically the buildings.”
As a result of her new amazing memory skills, the woman was now able to draw incredibly accurate representations of every single building she had ever seen. Finally, after more than a year and hundreds of tests, she was diagnosed with acquired savant syndrome.
5. Alonzo Clemons – Sculpting
After suffering from a severe brain injury as a young child, Alonzo Clemons was left with a developmental disability. As a result, he now has an IQ in the 40-50 range and is unable to eat or tie his shoe laces by himself. Given this, what may be surprising is that Alonzo is actually considered a top sculptor, able to create incredibly accurate and detailed animal sculptures using clay.
Alonzo is able to sculpt pretty much any animal (though his life-size horses are probably his most well known), even if he’s only caught a glimpse of it. He can even create realistic and accurate models within half an hour of seeing an animal briefly on the TV. As a result he has developed an international reputation following his first exhibit in 1986, and his pieces now sell for up to $45,000.
4. Sabine – Complex Arithmetic
Sabine was an average six-year-old girl before being struck down with typhoid fever in 1910. The illness lead to seizures which often left her unconscious for periods of time, and as a result she was left blind, mute and with a developmental disorder. Though her sight eventually returned, as did some of her speech abilities, she still had a childlike personality and was unable to take care of herself.
When she was a teenager, doctors noticed Sabine had a love of coins and buttons, so they began teaching her some simple math in the hope that she would be able to use money for herself. However, in the process they discovered that she had the ability to perform complex calculations very easily. For example, when asked to multiply 23 by 23 she answered almost instantly and she could square any number between 11 and 99 in under 10 seconds.
3. Derek Amato – Piano
Derek Amato made the mistake of diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool in October 2016, and suffered a concussion as a result. He lost 35 percent of his hearing and some of his memory after the accident, but there was one glimmer of hope — he had become a musical prodigy.
He explained in a blog post: “My fingers began to scale the piano keys as if I had played all of my life. I can’t explain the feeling of awe that overcame my entire being, although I can tell you the expression on my friend’s face was enough to put us both in tears.”
During a TED Talk Derek said that despite suffering with headaches and light sensitivity after the accident, he wouldn’t want to go back in time and change anything. He also said that if he were to suddenly lose his music gift, though sad, he would still be grateful for the experience.
2. Leigh Erceg – Math and Art
In 2009 Leigh Erceg, a ranch manager from Colorado, was feeding the chickens when she fell into a ravine, causing severe spine and brain injuries. After she had physically recovered from the ordeal she began to realize there was another, stranger, result of her accident.
The physical education graduate, who had previously had no interest in math or art whatsoever, was now fascinated by equations and had an overwhelming urge to draw. Her work is currently showcased in a Laguna Beach, California gallery.
Unfortunately, the brain injury she suffered also had some less desirable outcomes — she has been left extremely sensitive to light and she also has no memory of her life before the accident. She no longer even recognizes her own mother. She is reliant on her best friend, who she has known almost her whole life, to tell her who she used to be and help her understand her prior life.
1. Rory Curtis – French
British barber Rory Curtis, 25, had quite the shock when he woke up from a coma following a horrific car crash in 2014. Not only did he believe he was actor Matthew McConaughey, he was now also fluent in French, despite not studying it since school.
He told The Telegraph: “I didn’t even do French at GCSE so haven’t studied it since Year 9 – then all of a sudden I’m fluent in it. I don’t remember coming round but my family said one of the nurses was from Africa and spoke French and I was having conversations with her. I was just casually chatting away about how I was feeling in this perfect French accent. My mum and dad were stunned when they got to hospital and the nurse asked them what side of the family was French.”
Thankfully Rory soon realized he wasn’t actually the Oscar-winning actor McConaughey, but it seems his new language skills are here to stay.