The Savant Syndrome

Brain trauma is a serious issue to be dealt with. In a world with competitive sports, concussions and brain injuries are common. 1 in every 5 high school athletes will suffer a sports concussion during the season while 4 to 5 million concussions occur annually with number rising among student athletes [1]. A concussion and brain injury can seriously damage the brain, affecting mental cognition and may even lead to death.

However, there are the rare cases where brain trauma does not lead to impaired mental cognition, but amplifies it, leading to bouts of remarkable mental genius. Acquired savant syndrome occurs when ordinary people who suffer brain trauma develop superhuman mental abilities such as artistic brilliance, musical abilities, mathematical mastery, and photographic memory [2]. One acquired savant is the only person in the world who is able to draw complex geometric patterns such as fractals [3]. A brain injury left another savant a musical prodigy while a stroke made a savant into a celebrated artist [4].

What causes acquired savant syndrome? The neurological causes of acquired savant syndrome are poorly understood. But scientists who study patients with Alzheimer’s and psychosis have seen that as neurodegeneration continued, patients displayed new artistic talents. Scientists who study savants also have seen that there is left hemispheric damage in savants with artistic, mathematical, and memory skills [5].

One theory that scientists argue is that savant skills emerge because the left hemispheric areas that are diseased and that are associated with logic, verbal communication, and comprehension have actually been inhibiting latent artistic abilities present in people all along [2]. The circuits that keep the right brain inhibited disappear when the left brain goes dark. The areas of the right brain associated with creativity can operate unchecked.

In experiments designed to test this hypothesis, scientists performed transcranial direct current stimulation to temporarily immobilize the area of the brain destroyed by dementia in acquired savants. After tCDS, the participants were able to solve a geometric puzzle that had left people stumped for 50 years [2].

The left temporal lobe filters out sensory stimuli, sorting them into learned concepts. When the left temporal lobe is inhibited, the savants are able to access raw sensory information and get around the mind sets [2].

Another theory that dispels the left brain-right brain idea is that when brain cells die, they release neurotransmitters that rewire parts of the brain, opening new neural pathways into what was previously not available [2]. Accidents provoke a reorganization of the neurons that brought them in the conscious mind.

No matter what the explanation is for acquired savant syndrome, the phenomenon has been able to engender prodigious abilities in people who used to be ordinary. One can imagine what other spectacular abilities lie dormant among us, and how they can be unleashed.

References

[1] “Sport Concussion Statistics.” http://www.headcasecompany.com/concussion_info/stats_on_concussions_sports

[2] “When Brain Damage Unlocks the Genius Within.” Adam Piore. Posted February 19th http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-02/when-brain-damage-unlocks-genius-within

[3] “A Beautiful Mind: Brain Injury Turns Man Into Math Genius.” Tanya Lewis. Posted May 5th http://www.livescience.com/45349-brain-injury-turns-man-into-math-genius.html

[4] “The ‘Acquired’ Savant.” Darold A. Treffert. https://www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/professional/savant-syndrome/resources/articles/the-acquired-savant/

[5] “Tapping Your Inner Rain Man.” Darold A. Treffert. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tapping-your-inner-rain-man/

Shirley Xu is an undergraduate student at Northwestern University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.