The Mys­tery of AC­CI­DEN­TAL SA­VANTS

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY ADAM PIORE FROM THE BOOK THE BODY BUILDERS

Ja­son Pad­gett’s de­signs ( fac­ing page), the pi­ano play­ing of Derek Am­ato (above), and Alonzo Cle­mons’s sculp­tures (above left) are all prod­ucts of se­ri­ous head trauma

In rare cases, trau­matic head in­juries un­leash re­mark­able cre­ative tal­ents in the vic­tims. Is there a ge­nius lurk­ing in each of us?

Derek Am­ato stood above the shal­low end of the swim­ming pool and called for his buddy in the Jacuzzi to toss him the foot­ball. Then he launched him­self through the air head-first, arms out­stretched. The tips of Am­ato’s fin­gers brushed the pigskin – and he splashed through the wa­ter just be­fore his head slammed into the pool’s con­crete floor. He pushed to the sur­face, clap­ping his hands to his head, con­vinced that the wa­ter stream­ing down his cheeks was blood gush­ing from his ears.

At the edge of the pool, Am­ato col­lapsed into the arms of his friends Bill Peter­son and Rick Sturm. It was 2006, and the 39-year-old sales trainer was vis­it­ing his home­town in Colorado. Am­ato’s mother rushed him to emer­gency, where doc­tors di­ag­nosed him with se­vere concussion.

It would be weeks be­fore the full im­pact of Am­ato’s head trauma be­came ap­par­ent: 35 per cent hear­ing loss in one ear, headaches, mem­ory loss. But the most dra­matic con­se­quence ap­peared just five days af­ter his accident. Am­ato awoke, feel­ing hazy af­ter near- con­tin­u­ous sleep, and headed over to Sturm’s house. As the two pals chat­ted, Am­ato spot­ted an elec­tric key­board.

With­out think­ing, he sat in front of it. He had never played the pi­ano – he’d never had the slight­est in­cli­na­tion to. Now his fin­gers seemed to find the keys by in­stinct and, to his as­ton­ish­ment, rip­ple across them. His right hand started low, climb­ing in lyri­cal chains of tri­ads, skip­ping across melodic in­ter­vals and arpeg­gios, land­ing on the high notes, and then start­ing low again and build­ing back up. His left hand fol­lowed close be­hind, lay­ing down bass, pick­ing out har­mony. Am­ato sped up, slowed down, let pen­sive tones hang in the air and re­solved them into rich chords as if he had been play­ing for years. When Am­ato fi­nally looked up, Sturm’s eyes were filled with tears.

Am­ato played for six hours, leav­ing Sturm’s house early the next morn­ing with an un­shak­able feel­ing of won­der. He had fooled around with in­stru­ments in high school, even learned a de­cent rhythm gui­tar. But noth­ing like this. Though he knew he hadn’t sud­denly trans­formed into US jazz pi­anist and com­poser Th­elo­nious Monk – he wasn’t that good – Am­ato had ac­cessed a well of un­tapped cre­ativ­ity and abil­ity he had never be­fore touched; sud­denly there was mu­sic ris­ing up spon­ta­neously from within him, com­ing out his fin­ger­tips. How was this pos­si­ble?

Within days of his in­jury, Am­ato be­gan search­ing the in­ter­net for an ex­pla­na­tion, typ­ing in terms such as gifted and head trauma. He found the name Dr Darold Tr­ef­fert, an ex­pert on sa­vant syn­drome, a con­di­tion in which in­di­vid­u­als who are typ­i­cally men­tal ly im­paired demon­strate ­re­mark­able skills. Am­ato fired off an email; soon he had an­swers. Dr Tr­ef­fert di­ag­nosed Am­ato with ac­quired sa­vant syn­drome. In the 90 or so known cases, or­di­nary peo­ple who’d suf­fered brain trauma sud­denly de­vel­oped what seemed like al­most su­per­hu­man new abil­i­ties: artis­tic bril­liance, math­e­mat­i­cal mas­tery, pho­to­graphic mem­ory. Dr Tr­ef­fert be­lieves that our brains come with a wide ar­ray of ‘fac­tory in­stalled’ soft­ware – la­tent abil­i­ties that ex­ist but we some­times don’t have ac­cess to. The ex­act na­ture of an ac­quired sa­vant’s emer­gent abil­i­ties de­pends on the ex­act lo­ca­tion of the in­jury. That ex­plains the wide vari­a­tion in both the range of abil­i­ties found in dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­u­als and their man­i­fes­ta­tions.

FOR JA­SON PAD­GETT, a fu­ton sales­man, a head in­jury re­sulted in un­com­mon math­e­mat­i­cal abil­i­ties. Pad­gett suf­fered a se­vere concussion af­ter two men at­tacked him out­side a karaoke bar in 2002. When he woke up, he saw pix­e­lated pat­terns ev­ery­where – in wa­ter spi­ralling down the drain, in sun­light fil­ter­ing through the leaves of trees. In his high school days, Pad­gett had been a weightlifter and party-goer who cheated on maths tests and had lit­tle in­ter­est in aca­demics. But af­ter his accident, he be­gan sketch­ing in­tri­cate ge­o­met­ri­cal draw­ings, at­tempt­ing to cap­ture what he saw. Pad­gett did not un­der­stand their sig­nif­i­cance un­til a physi­cist hap­pened to catch a glimpse of one of his sketches. He recog­nised them as highly so­phis­ti­cated vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal re­la­tion­ships and urged Pad­gett to en­rol in maths classes. To­day,

Pad­gett is one of the few peo­ple ca­pa­ble of draw­ing frac­tals (re­peat­ing pat­terns that start sim­ply and get pro­gres­sively com­plex).

Or­lando Ser­rell was hit on the left side of his head by a base­ball when he was ten and soon af­ter re­alised he could re­mem­ber pre­cisely what he was do­ing and what the weather con­di­tions were on any given day go­ing back years.

As a young child, Alonzo Cle­mons suf­fered a se­vere brain trauma fol­low­ing a bad fall. He then de­vel­oped a re­mark­able abil­ity: af­ter catch­ing just a glimpse of an an­i­mal on tele­vi­sion, he was able to sculpt an ac­cu­rate 3D model of it. His life­like an­i­mal sculp­tures have earned him world­wide renown.

Many ac­quired sa­vants also have neg­a­tive symp­toms. Cle­mons never re­cov­ered from his accident. To­day, he suf­fers from a de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­ity and has an IQ in the 40 to 50 range. Pad­gett de­vel­oped symp­toms of ob­ses­sive- com­pul­sive dis­or­der: he found him­self wash­ing his hands 20 times in an hour. Even so, these in­di­vid­u­als speak of their new abil­i­ties with won­der.

How is it that a bump on the head can sud­denly un­leash the muse? And what does it mean for the rest of us?

DR BRUCE MILLER, who di­rects the Univer­sity of Cal i for­nia San Fran­cisco Mem­ory and Aging Cen­ter, treats el­derly peo­ple with Alzheimer’s dis­ease and other forms of de­men­tia. One day in the mid-1990s, Dr Miller spoke with the son of a pa­tient who said his f­ather had de­vel­oped a fix­a­tion with paint­ing. Even stranger, as his ­fa­ther’s symp­toms wors­ened, the man said, his fa­ther’s paint­ings im­proved. Dr Miller was du­bi­ous un­til the son sent him some ex­am­ples. The work, Dr Miller re­calls, was bril­liant.

“The use of colour was strik­ing,” he says. “He had an ob­ses­sion with yel­low and pur­ple.” Soon the pa­tient,

a brainy busi­ness­man with no pre­vi­ous artis­tic in­ter­ests, had lost his grip on so­cial norms: he was ver­bally repet­i­tive, changed clothes in pub­lic, in­sulted strangers and shoplifted. But he was win­ning awards at lo­cal art shows.

By 2000, Dr Miller had iden­ti­fied 12 other pa­tients who dis­played ­un­ex­pected new tal­ents as their neu­ro­log­i­cal de­gen­er­a­tion con­tin­ued. As de­men­tia laid waste to brain re­gions as­so­ci­ated with lan­guage, re­straint and so­cial eti­quette, the pa­tients’ ­artis­tic abil­i­ties ex­ploded.

Al­though these symp­toms de­fied con­ven­tional wis­dom on brain dis­ease in the el­derly, Dr Miller re­alised they were con­sis­tent with sa­vant syn­drome. Sa­vants of­ten dis­play an ob­ses­sive com­pul­sion to per­form their spe­cial skill, and they ex­hibit deficits in so­cial and lan­guage be­hav­iours – de­fects present in de­men­tia pa­tients. Dr Miller won­dered whether there might be neu­ro­log­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties, too.

He read the brain scan of a fiveyear-old autis­tic sa­vant able to re­pro­duce in­tri­cate scenes from mem­ory. The scan re­vealed ab­nor­mal in­ac­tiv­ity in the an­te­rior tem­po­ral lobes of the left ­hemi­sphere – ex­actly the re­sults he’d found in his de­men­tia pa­tients. Stud­ies sug­gest that parts of the an­te­rior tem­po­ral lobe are as­so­ci­ated with logic, ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, com­pre­hen­sion and per­haps so­cial judg­ment.

In most cases, sci­en­tists at­tribute growth in artis­tic skills to prac­tise, prac­tise, prac­tise. But af­ter his re­search, Dr Miller ar­gued that sa­vant skills emerge in de­men­tia pa­tients be­cause the area rav­aged by ­dis­ease – the an­te­rior tem­po­ral lobe – has ac­tu­ally been in­hibit­ing la­tent artis­tic abil­i­ties present in those peo­ple all along. The skills do not emerge as a re­sult of newly ac­quired brain­power; they emerge be­cause, for the first time, the ar­eas of the brain ­as­so­ci­ated with the free f low of ideas can op­er­ate unchecked.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Miller, in the brains of de­men­tia pa­tients and some autis­tic sa­vants, the lack of in­hi­bi­tion in ar­eas as­so­ci­ated with cre­ativ­ity led to keen artis­tic ex­pres­sion and an al­most com­pul­sive urge to cre­ate. Derek Am­ato was no ex­cep­tion.

IN THE WEEKS af­ter Am­ato’s accident, his mind raced – and his fin­gers wanted to move. He found him­self tap­ping out pat­terns and wak­ing up from naps with his fin­gers drum­ming against his legs. He bought a key­board. With­out one, he felt anx­ious, over­stim­u­lated. Only when he was able to sit down and play did he feel a deep sense of calm. He would shut him­self in, some­times for as long as three days, just him and the key­board, ex­plor­ing his new tal­ent, try­ing to un­der­stand it, and let­ting the mu­sic pour out of him.

Am­ato ex­pe­ri­enced other symp­toms, many of them neg­a­tive. Black and white squares ap­peared in his

vi­sion, as if a trans­par­ent fil­ter had syn­the­sised be­fore his eyes. He was plagued with headaches, as many as five a day. They made his head pound, and light and noise caused ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain. One day, he col­lapsed in his brother’s bath­room. An­other, he al­most passed out in a su­per­mar­ket.

Still, Am­ato’s feel­ings were un­am­bigu­ous. He was cer­tain he had been given a gift. The ev­i­dence lay not just in the ease he felt when he put his fin­gers on the key­board, but also in the drive he felt – the burn­ing com­pul­sion to play. He felt it in his heart: This was what he was meant to do.

FEW PEO­PLE have fol­lowed the emer­gence of ac­quired sa­vants with more in­ter­est than Al­lan Sny­der, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. In 2012, as part of his re­search, Sny­der and his col­leagues gave 28 vol­un­teers a geo­met­ric puz­zle that has stumped lab­o­ra­tory sub­jects for more than 50 years. The chal­lenge: con­nect nine dots, ar­rayed in three rows of three, us­ing four straight lines with­out re­trac­ing a line or lift­ing the pen. None of the sub­jects could solve the prob­lem. Then Sny­der and his col­leagues at­tached elec­trodes to the heads of sub­jects and used pain­less di­rect elec­tri­cal cur­rents to tem­po­rar­ily im­mo­bi­lize the left an­te­rior tem­po­ral lobe – the area of the brain de­stroyed by de­men­tia in Miller’s ac­quired sa­vants. At the same time, they stim­u­lated ar­eas in the right an­te­rior tem­po­ral lobe, mak­ing the neu­rons that were more ac­tive in the de­men­tia pa­tients – the ones as­so­ci­ated with cre­ativ­ity – more likely to fire.

This time, more than 40 per cent of the par­tic­i­pants in Sny­der’s ex­per­i­ment solved the prob­lem. The ex­per­i­ment, Sny­der ar­gues, sup­ports the the­ory that ac­quired sa­vants blos­som once brain ar­eas nor­mally held in check have be­come un­fet­tered, mean­ing that sa­vants can ac­cess raw sen­sory in­for­ma­tion nor­mally off-lim­its to the con­scious mind. When a

non- mu­si­cian hears mu­sic, they per­ceive the big pic­ture: melodies. Am­ato, Sny­der says, hears in­di­vid­ual notes. It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween just hear­ing a sym­phony and be­ing able to pick out the flute. Dr Miller’s de­men­tia pa­tients have artis­tic skills be­cause they are draw­ing what they see: de­tails and not sim­ply broad strokes.

Psy­chol­o­gist and neu­ro­sci­en­tist Jon Kaas of Van­der­bilt Univer­sity says our ten­dency to “see the big pic­ture” – to look at a bunch of trees and see a for­est – makes evo­lu­tion­ary sense. If we al­lowed our­selves to get caught up in de­tails and not the over­all pic­ture, we could get hope­lessly and dan­ger­ously dis­tracted. We might get hung up, for in­stance, on the shin­ing eyes or in­tri­cate tan­gle of hair on the head of the big an­i­mal by the wa­ter­ing hole – in­stead of re­al­is­ing it’s a lion that might eat us for din­ner and that we’d bet­ter run.

“If you are in a semi-dan­ger­ous en­vi­ron­ment, it’s im­por­tant to be aware of what’s chang­ing,” he says. “You don’t want to get dis­tracted or lost in the de­tails.”

MU­SI­CAL RENOWN has yet to fol­low for Am­ato, though he did re­lease an al­bum, per­formed with the famed jazz-fu­sion gui­tarist Stan­ley Jor­dan, and was asked to write the score for a Ja­panese doc­u­men­tary. Still, the for­mer anony­mous sales trainer is an in­spi­ra­tional sym­bol of hu­man pos­si­bil­ity for mu­sic lovers dream­ing of grander things.

Sa­vant ex­pert Dr Tr­ef­fert, neu­ro­sci­en­tist Sny­der and oth­ers spoke en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about un­rav­el­ling the phe­nom­e­non of ac­quired sa­van­tism in order to one day en­able all of us to ex­plore our hid­den tal­ents. The Derek Amatos of the world pro­vide a glimpse of that goal – un­tapped ­hu­man po­ten­tial lies in ev­ery­one.

In Am­ato’s play­ing, there is ex­pres­sion, melody and un­de­ni­able skill. And if this can emerge spon­ta­neously in Am­ato, who’s to say what po­ten­tial might lie dor­mant in the rest of us?

To hear Am­ato play, search ‘Derek Am­ato: I Am Sa­vant’ on YouTube.

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