A blow to the head may just change your life, for the better. This is the case for about 40 people world-wide who were diagnosed with savant syndrome following some sort of head trauma. Unfortunately, for the majority of the population, knocking oneself unconscious typically results in blurred vision, headaches, and bleeding on the brain. It may also cause mental changes, like an increase in grumpiness or a more fiery temper. But a select few experience a transformation of skills that can only be described as releasing an inner Rain Man. Chances are, this change might reside in us all.
In 2002, Jason Pagett was mugged when leaving a karaoke bar. The thieves managed to escape with his wallet and knocked him unconscious as well. Pagett had been a college dropout interested solely in drinking, racing cars, and bulking up at the gym. Following his head injury this all changed. He found that he had a sudden affinity for mathematics and biology. He was said to have stated that he was suddenly able to see his home in a strange new light, from the angles of the roof and the shapes of the windows to the “curvature of a spoon.”
Pagett returned to school to study mathematics and spent a great deal of time drawing fractals, which he found he was able to do with extraordinary precision. But it was not until he saw the documentary on Daniel Tammet, a boy from London who also has savant syndrome, that Pagett recognized what had happened to his brain. Following the documentary he got in touch with Dr. Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist based in Wisconsin and a lead expert on savantism. After meeting with Pagett, Dr Treffert diagnosed him as having “acquired savant syndrome.”
The syndrome is said to be more common in men than women, with six male savants affected to every female. There are also different types of savantism, depending on a number of different features. Dr. Treffert calls the first of these “splinter skills,” meaning a person who is good at remembering things. Then there is the “talented savant,” which describes a person with extremely good skills in one area, say mathematics or music. Finally there is the “prodigious savant,” which describes a person who appears to have talents that can be said to be beyond comprehension to the majority of the population.
Scientists have pondered the question of why head trauma can lead to releasing an inner Rain Man. It has been thought that the brain’s neuroplasticity, which allows it to bend and change in an attempt to repair itself following head trauma, is the reason savant syndrome exists. However, Bruce Miller, a behavioural neurologist at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center in San Francisco, has postulated a new theory. He believes that the syndrome arises when the area of the brain responsible for creativity and logic are damaged. When the brain tries to rewire these right side parts it results in an outpouring of creativity as those regions are allowed to flow unchecked.
But having intense musical or mathematical abilities can have a down side. Many savants lose other aspects of their personality. Massive head trauma always results in brain injury. In the case of Pagett, after his blow to the head he became obsessed with the idea of germs. This became so extreme that he would not allow his daughter to touch him without first washing her hands.
Thus for most people head trauma is not a path to savant syndrome. While a chosen few could find that the experience releases their inner Rain Man-like abilities, it is probably not worth the risk.
By Sara Watson