Wednesday, August 08, 2018 by Isabelle Z.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could just wake up one morning and suddenly be a genius? Maybe you would like to be a violin virtuoso or have the ability to paint incredibly detailed pictures despite having no training in the arts and no natural gifts that you know of. If you think that could never happen to you, it’s time to familiarize yourself with sudden savant syndrome.
You might have heard stories of people suddenly developing a new ability after a brain injury or stroke, but did you know that this can also happen to ordinary people without any precipitating injury or central nervous system incident?
Scientists say that genius brain function can indeed be spontaneously unleashed in people without any obvious cause. They’ve seen cases where people have had a sudden and spontaneous “epiphany” moment where they suddenly understood the intricacies of math, art, or music. These “sudden geniuses” had no underlying disability and therefore are not considered to have congenital or acquired savant syndrome.
For example, a woman suddenly noticed that she was perceiving the world around her differently when she was in her mid 40s. When looking at flowers or trees, she started seeing textures, shadows and colors in ways that she previously hadn’t and felt the strong compulsion to express this new vision on paper. She immediately bought some pastel pencils and got to work, drawing a rich and eerily realistic gorilla that shocked her family and friends given her past disinterest in art and lack of aptitude for it. In fact, she had never taken an art class in her life!
She quickly became consumed with pastel painting. She said it wasn’t so much a hobby that she could enjoy as it was an ability that she felt she absolutely had to act on. The obsession nearly took over her life, and she finds that she has to hide her art supplies from herself when she needs to focus on things in her life that are more pressing. She has no history of nervous system injury or autism.
In a different case, a 28-year-old Israeli man said that he had a “light bulb moment” at the mall when he saw a piano and suddenly sat down at it and started playing like an educated pianist. He reports suddenly understanding major scales, minor scales, chords harmonies, interval recognition, and common finger placement. He has no history of developmental disorders and is now an attorney who does musical performances on the side.
What makes this different from people who pick up a new hobby later in life? According to Dr. Darold A. Treffert, an expert on savant syndrome who served as a consultant on the movie Rain Man, in these cases skills have an abrupt onset in people who had no prior talent or interest in the new ability, and there is no obvious disease, injury, or precipitating event.
Moreover, the new skill is accompanied by an epiphany-like knowledge of the rules that underpin math, art, or music – even though the person has never studied the subjects before. There is also an obsessive-compulsive component wherein the person feels an overpowering need to practice their new skill.
Dr. Treffert reports that the average age of onset among his cases is 47.2 years and most of them relate to artistic skill. He said that the phenomenon “underscores the possibility such savant abilities may be dormant, to one degree or another, in all of us.” He says that the challenge is finding a way to tap into these abilities with non-intrusive methods.
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