You may wonder how someone can become an accidental genius. The answer lies in one of the most fascinating human conditions, called acquired savant syndrome. Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which an individual is born with mental disabilities (such as autism) but are remarkably gifted (to the point of being a genius) in particular areas such as math, language, visual arts, music or memory. One of the most well-known savants was Kim Peek, the man who inspired Dustin Hoffman's character in the hit 1988 movie, Rain Man.
On the other hand, acquired Savant syndrome occurs when a person isn’t born with Savant syndrome, rather they suddenly develop it following brain trauma (an illness, seizures or head injury). Could you imagine being hit in the head and waking up to find yourself a sudden musical prodigy? It sounds like something straight from a movie or a comic book, but in fact such things have happened to nearly 50 people in the world (that we know of). As you will discover in this list, the number of males with Savant syndrome outnumbers that of females by 6 to 1.
Savant syndrome really begs to question whether we all have a hidden genius within us waiting to be unleashed. For years, scientists have been studying the brains of these fascinating people in search of an answer. Here are 16 stories of these amazing “accidental” geniuses.
16 Orlando Serrell
On August 17th, 1979, Orlando Serrell, age 10, was playing baseball with his friends as he usually did. However, the ball accidentally hit him on the left side of his head, causing him to fall to the ground and remain there for a few moments. Like any strong-willed child, Orlando eventually got back up and continued playing. Though his head hurt for a long time, he didn’t tell his parents what happened, so he didn’t receive any treatment for the accident. Once his headache ended, Orlando discovered something unbelievable; he could perform calendrical calculations (such as recalling the day of the week for a given date) in addition to effortlessly recalling the weather, the place he was and what he was doing every single day since the accident. His ability to name the days of the week or dates before his accident also improved.
15 Jason Padgett
You may be wondering what good you could get out of being mugged and kicked repeatedly in the head. For Jason Padgett, the attack in 2002 gave him a severe concussion, post-traumatic stress disorder and even superior mathematical abilities. He says that he sees shapes and angles everywhere (even in his dreams) and he is believed to be the only person in the world that can see and draw fractals by hand. The most fascinating thing is that before his attack, he never had any interest at all in math or academics. He was a college dropout who loved partying and working out. Now, he’s a number theorist whose beautiful and intricate artwork is up for sale. Brain scans revealed that the most active area was his left parietal cortex, which is responsible for integrating information from different senses. When researchers inhibited the area temporarily (via transcranial magnetic stimulation), they found that his ability faded.
14 Anthony Cicoria
Tony Cicoria was already a pretty smart man (being an orthopaedic surgeon in New York) but it wasn’t until lightning struck, literally, that the true genius within him was revealed. He was calling his mother from a payphone one stormy night when a lightning bolt struck him down. Luckily, a nurse was nearby and she saved his life. The incident left him with a strange desire though: he wanted to hear and play classical music obsessively, something he was never interest in before. He began to buy records and even heard music in his head. When a friend asked if they could store their piano at his house, it was like a dream come true for Cicoria. As he sat down with sheet music and tried to play it, his own amazing compositions would take over. He has since released a CD, appropriately named Notes From An Accidental Pianist and Composer.
13 Leigh Erceg
Leigh Erceg was a Colorado rancher who fell down a ravine and suffered a serious brain injury. The accident led to memory loss (she couldn’t even remember her own mother) and some remarkable art, poetry and mathematical skills. She spends her time doing math equations and black and white Sharpie drawings. Unlike most people, who start with the outline of the object they’re attempting to draw, Leigh begins with details. Her work is showcased in a gallery in Laguna Beach, CA. But, Leigh is also different from the other Savants on this list because she not only developed Savant syndrome but also synesthesia, the mixing of the senses. She can “see” sounds and “hear” colors. Since her accident she has also developed an urge to dance.
12 Daniel Tammet
Daniel Tammet suffered a series of seizures when he was a child. He also displayed atypical behaviors such as banging his head against walls and avoiding eye contact (symptoms of an autistic disorder). However, he went on to become a well-known Savant when, in 2004, he recited Pi from memory, to over 22,000 decimal places, without an error! But that’s just one of the many gifts Tammet has. Like Leigh Erceg, he is also a synesthete, and he sees numbers as shapes, colors and textures. This amazing man can multiply large sums in his head within seconds, perform calendrical calculations, and speak 11 languages (one of which he learned in just a week). He’s written multiple books and given lectures about his life. As if this isn’t enough, Daniel (unlike the other Savants) can explain how he does what he does, making him a jackpot to scientists.
11 Alonzo Clemons
After suffering a traumatic brain injury from a fall as a child, Alonzo Clemons was left with a permanent learning disability and also an amazing gift. Show him an image of any animal, even for a few seconds, and Alonzo can create a perfect sculpted replica of that animal, with every accurate detail. Something like that can take hours, or even days, for a regular artist, but this accidental Savant can do it in mere minutes. His most famous piece is a life-sized replica of horses, entitled Three Frolicking Foals, which he completed in just 3 weeks. His work has been on display at galleries and exhibits across the U.S. and his bronze sculptures have sold for thousands of dollars.
10 Tommy McHugh
Tommy McHugh’s profile before one life-changing brain damage event makes him sound as though he was going nowhere in life. He had spent time in prison, was a heroin addict, and always found himself getting into fights. However, his personality changed completely at the age of 51 when he suffered a brain hemorrhage (a stroke caused by bleeding). He suddenly had an urge to write poetry, which he described as finally getting in touch with his feminine side. He also created visual art obsessively. The walls in his house, and even the ceilings and floors, are now covered in his paintings. He was now a different man, one who was unusually emotional and unable to hurt people. The catch was that he was unable to switch between different cognitive tasks and sometimes he couldn't stop talking, suggesting problems with his frontal lobe (the area of the brain responsible for abstract thought and creativity).
Shortly after Sabine began school as a child, she suffered typhoid fever which led to convulsions and a period of unconsciousness. It also caused temporary blindness and muteness, with a permanent child-like personality. When she was about 13, she became interested in coins and buttons, always grouping them and organizing them into 16 pieces. She was also able to solve complex math calculations with little effort. But what was even more astounding, was that she solved all the equations by incorporating the number 16. For example, if she was asked to solve 23 x 23, she would answer 529 (thinking it's the same as 33 x 16+1).
8 Jon Sarkin
It seemed like any ordinary day when Jon Sarkin was playing a round of golf with his friends. But, he suddenly suffered a brain hemorrhage that completely changed his life. Once he had recovered from the trauma, he felt compelled to create all kinds of art, from paintings to sculptures. His paintings are filled with words and images and are now featured in many galleries around the world and sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Tom Cruise actually bought the rights to make a movie of his life, and Pulitzer Prize winning author Amy Ellis, also wrote a book about him.
7 Derek Amato
Derek Amato was playing with a football in a pool with his friend when he launched himself into the air and landed headfirst into the concrete floor of the pool. He drifted in and out of consciousness and was diagnosed with a severe concussion. Four days later, when he visited a friend’s house, he found an electric keyboard and began playing it as though he’d been playing it his entire life (yet, he had never played the instrument). He played for 6 hours and finally left his friend’s house in shock at what had happened. The theories are that Amato’s brain either reorganized itself (such that musical memories were made available) or that his brain doesn’t filter sensory input, so he hears individual notes instead of melodies.
6 Pippa Taylor
Most of us have fallen down the stairs at least once. But how many of us gained incredible artistic abilities after that fall? Pippa Taylor, a middle-aged woman residing in England did just that. Although she enjoyed art as a teenager, she struggled to draw even simple images and was discouraged by her teachers to pursue art professionally. A fall down the stairs in 2012, which bruised her brain, changed all of that. Pippa can now produce detailed sketches of objects, people and animals. She doesn’t draw from memory but can copy three-dimensional objects or photographs perfectly. She now draws up to four pictures a day and people have commissioned her to create portraits for them.
5 Ric Owens
On the day of his car accident a few years ago in 2011, Ric Owens thought he was unharmed. It wasn’t until a week later that he began feeling dizzy, slurring his speech and having migraines. He was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome and found that one morning, the world looked very different. He says that he saw shapes and angles and was compelled to draw them. The former chef no longer wanted to cook, but spent his days drawing architecture obsessively. He says he just allows it to happen. His unique art has been showcased in galleries across Philadelphia.
4 Anonymous U.S. Woman
Though she chose to remain anonymous, a U.S. woman described an accident that turned her into an accidental Savant in an essay on XOJane. The young woman says she was on a family ski vacation during her senior year of College when she fell down an icy hill. She continued to ski anyway, but was diagnosed shortly after with a mild concussion. In the weeks following the accident, things began to change. She said she could suddenly remember everywhere she’d ever been, and draw perfect diagrams of the locations. She tried to ignore the symptoms, but eventually sought help and was diagnosed was acquired Savant syndrome.
3 Ken Walters
At the age of 30, Ken Walters seemed to be in a good spot—he was a successful engineer that was happily settled. What he didn’t know was that he was in for a 19-year streak of bad luck. It all started when he was working on a farm and a kid lost control of a forklift and pinned Ken against a wall, breaking his back. He was unable to get up for a year. Add financial issues, 2 heart attacks and a stroke to that list and you’ve got one miserable man. But, there’s a silver lining to all the bad luck that Ken received. While bedridden from the stroke, Ken unconsciously began drawing on a notepad, and he continued to wake up in the middle of the night—every night—to do so. He was so surprised by this desire, as he hadn’t drawn since he was a child. When he was released from the hospital, he continued making art, but this time on his computer instead. He eventually sold some pieces (even to companies like IBM) and was eventually hired by the video game company, Electronic Arts.
2 Patient X
A 23 year old man living in a sanitarium in the early part of the 20th century was known in medical journals only as "X." He reportedly had a mental age of only 7, due to contracting pneumonia and meningitis at a young age, which stunted his development. Prior to the illness, he was a healthy child who could sing and was just beginning to learn the piano. Upon moving into the institution, X was repeatedly drawn to the piano. His doctors soon discovered that he was indeed a musical genius. After hearing a song or reading sheet music only once, he could play the tune flawlessly and could recall it again even if it had been years since he last performed it. Despite his amazing talent with performing music, he was unable to write his own compositions, because he seemed to lack the capacity for creativity. Nevertheless, he was able to do what most people with normal mental development could not.
1 Franco Magnani
Most of us can’t even remember what we had for breakfast yesterday, let alone draw a picture of it in fine detail. That’s why this case of acquired Savant syndrome will sound unbelievable. Franco Magnani arrived in San Francisco from Italy in the 1960s. Unfortunately (or so it seemed), he came down with such a bad fever that he had seizures. Once the episode was over, Franco began remembering the Italian village where he had grown up as a child thirty years earlier. The memories were so vivid and filled with such detail that he began to draw and paint them. When put side by side with present-day photographs of the locations, it was clear that his artworks were astoundingly accurate. The Exploratorium in San Francisco held an exhibit titled Memory: The Art and Science of Remembering, in which Magnini’s work was featured.