Can a brain injury make you a genius?

The superhero comic books may have been onto something: as strange as it might seem, a devastating experience like a brain injury could unlock an unexpected potential within your brain.

Imagine waking up after a brain injury and being able to play the piano like Beethoven in his prime. Where previously you’d never even had a lesson! This is called acquired savant syndrome, an extraordinary phenomenon that happens to some people after a traumatic brain incident.

Unleashing your genius

The word savant literally means: “a person of profound learning or wisdom.” Although we aren’t sure how acquired savant syndrome happens, the Wisconsin Medical Society thinks that perhaps this capacity or skill is hidden in everyone, and only comes to the surface like a ‘backup system’, when there is an injury to the brain.

If this sounds all too fantastical to be true, take a look at people like Alonzo Clemens. This American man suffered a brain injury when he was a child. As a result, he was left with a developmental disability – but was able to create astonishingly accurate animal sculptures out of clay. And all he needed was a few minutes of seeing an animal on TV or in a picture – his mind could immediately grasp the form and he could then reproduce the images to its exact form. In interviews, his mother said that his sculpting skills only appeared after his head injury.

Another case is a 10-year-old boy who acquired the ability to do complicated Maths equations after a head injury. There are more cases out there, but what makes this syndrome unique is that it only affects about 30 to 50 people at a time.

Brainy business

The records of acquired savants, while not extensive, are certainly fascinating – and go back a long time. In 1991 a report in Brain and Cognition revealed that an eight-year-old boy showed amazing calculating ability after a left brain hemispherectomy (removal). A few years later, the Lancet reported three patients who’d started showing fantastic skill in painting after being diagnosed with front temporal dementia.

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Of course the brain is a vastly complicated organ – one we don’t fully understand. The closest scientists can come to explaining this condition is that some sort of rewiring happens in certain cases of brain injury, usually triggered by the part of the brain that is still intact. This intact tissue somehow awakens or releases the dormant potential.

Some other explanations surmise that when one part of the brain is damaged in some way, the other parts that are normally “held in check” are now free to unleash hidden reserves of genius. Another theory is that when brain cells die from the trauma of an injury, they release a whole load of neurotransmitters and the sudden tsunami of potent chemicals creates new and interesting dynamics in the brain.

Which naturally raises the question: do we all have an incredible talent that can only be unleashed by a brain injury?

It just might be. American psychiatrist Darold Treffert has been studying the syndrome for years. He explains, “I think there’s hidden potential within us all, in varying degrees and types.” Other researchers point out that we’ve long been told we use only 10% our brain – opening the door for lots of stored potential.

Or maybe, there are some things science itself can’t explain…

Like the case of Jason Padgett, an American college dropout. One day he was mugged in a bar and hit on the back of his head. He was knocked unconscious. When he woke up, he was suddenly able to process geometric information – something he’d never been able to do. In other words, he went from being Penny on the Big Bang Theory to being Sheldon!