Savants have almost super-human abilities in art, music or memory – and not all are born that way. But is severe head trauma the only way to become a ‘sudden savant’?
By William Langley
7:30AM BST 04 Oct 2012
On Southport’s stately seafront, the opening of a new art exhibition is drawing a late summer crowd. Long and unusually complex in the planning, it features the paintings of Tommy McHugh, an ex-builder from nearby Liverpool whose work has attracted worldwide attention.
Despite the appreciative buzz, Tommy, unfortunately, can’t be present. I later find him in the intensive care unit of a hospital on the Wirral, where he has been taken with acute pneumonia. A few weeks later he is dead. The redoubtable, 62 year-old latecomer to the world of art had been plagued with illness for some time, but harboured mixed feelings about his afflictions. It was after a near-fatal stroke, 11 years ago, that he discovered – to no one’s greater surprise than his own – that he could paint.
And paint not just as an occasional pleasure, but with a furious, obsessive exactness that took over his life and produced a stream of acclaimed works. Psychologists, who looked at his case, considered him to be one of the world’s foremost examples of “sudden savant syndrome” – a rare, barely-understood phenomenon whereby damage to the brain somehow unlocks a hidden talent.
There are so few confirmed cases — perhaps 30 in the world – that plausible explanations are hard to come by. Take Orlando Serrell, a 44-year-old from Virginia who was hit on the head by a baseball as a boy, and later found he could do complicated calculations and remember the precise weather conditions of any given day of the year.
Or Tony Cicoria. An orthopaedic surgeon from New York State, Dr Cicoria was struck by lightning in 1994 as he chatted to his mother from an outdoor telephone booth. Within weeks he became obsessed with classical piano music and a few years later — despite no previous interest in music beyond listening to rock songs – he made his public debut as a pianist and composer in a solo recital.
What is the explanation for all this? And does it – as some scientists now believe – hold the promise of unleashing the inner talents of everyone?
“What appears to happen,” says Darold Treffert, a consultant psychiatrist from Wisconsin who has studied such cases for 40 years, “is that after severe trauma the brain rewires itself. When damage occurs in one part of the brain it may be that other parts step in to compensate and in doing so release dormant potential which manifests itself as abilities that weren’t there – or weren’t known about – before.”
McHugh’s upbringing wasn’t the kind that nurtured an appreciation of arts and high culture. One of 12 children born into a working-class family, he was in regular trouble as a young man, fell into drug use, served time in prison, and eventually made a career of sorts as a builder and odd-job man. No one would have thought that his appreciation of art went beyond the tattoos on his forearms.
But in 2001 Tommy suffered a severe stroke, with haemorrhaging on both sides of his brain. When he returned home he had no idea who he was. The face in the mirror was one he didn’t recognise. The woman who said she was his wife was a stranger. He found he could only speak in an elaborate form of rhyme.
Then, as he groped around in a world he no longer knew, the emptiness was replaced by a huge, urgent creative rush. He began painting and hasn’t stopped. He covered the walls, the doors and the ceilings of his house in vivid, intricate patterns and when he ran out of space, he re-covered what he had already painted. “It was as though a balloon had popped,” he told me, propped up in a bed in Arrow Park Hospital. “I could see the beauty of the world. I knew who I was. The man I used to be had gone forever. I don’t even know who he was.” Tommy produced not only paintings, but sculptures and collages, and his rhymes began to fashion themselves into poetry.
Dr Mark Lythgoe, a neurologist at University College London, who has studied the McHugh case, says: “It may be that the brain damage that Tommy sustained has caused disinhibition of brain pathways, allowing his creativity to surface. Perhaps whatever was keeping his artistic talents hidden or dormant has been damaged just enough to allow them to pour through.”
Tommy himself spoke like a born-again convert, desperate for others to hear the Good News. “This isn’t something special to me,” he said. “This is inside everyone, but they are too frightened to let it out. Then something happens to you and it comes out anyway.”
The results are sometimes bizarre. Last year, Chris Birch, a 19-stone rugby player from South Wales, told how he suffered a stroke and woke up gay. The 26-year-old proceeded to ditch his girlfriend, pack in his job and retrain as a hairdresser. Other patients have started speaking in foreign accents. But researchers are most interested in those who wake up with savant-type abilities.
In 2003, Bruce Miller, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that some patients suffering from a degenerative brain disorder called frontotemporal dementia (FTD), developed sudden and remarkable artistic talents as their conditions progressed. One of the cases he studied involved Anne Adams, a renowned Canadian biologist, who – as FTD gnawed at the cognitive networks of her brain – lost the power of speech, but gained extraordinary artistic skills. “This shows how plastic our brain is,” explained Miller in a report published in the magazine Brain four years ago. “If you turn off the language circuits, you may have increased activities in other areas.”
Elsewhere, scientists are now investigating whether it’s possible to replicate this change without, of course, damaging the patient. Dr Allan Snyder, of the University of Sydney, has created a machine called the Medronic MagPro which attempts temporarily to replicate the deterioration caused by FTD, by sending precise electromagnetic pulses into the frontal lobes of the brain. Snyder calls it “a creativity amplification machine”.
One guinea pig who underwent Snyder’s tests was asked to draw a sequence of pictures of cats. He reported: “Two minutes after I started the first drawing, I was instructed to try again. After another two minutes I tried a third cat, and then in due course a fourth. Then the experiment was over, and the electrodes were removed. I looked down at my work. The first felines were boxy and stiffly unconvincing, but after I had been subjected to about 10 minutes of transcranial magnetic stimulation, their tails had grown more vibrant; their faces were personable and convincing.” Other patients, says Snyder, have experienced enhanced abilities in memory, visual skills and mathematical calculation.
Savants are usually defined as people – predominantly men – who possess unusual powers of memory, calculation or artistic skill in conjunction with severe mental deficiencies. The condition presents in men much more often than in women because, according to some scientists, high levels of testosterone in the male foetus cause damage to the left hemisphere of the brain. Treffert describes savant abilities as “deep but narrow”, and many struggle with the wider challenges of life. Sudden savant syndrome appears to add a further dimension to the phenomenon, as most have had relatively normal lives until the savantism hits them.
If there is a Leonardo lurking in all of us, or a Mozart writing silent scores in our heads, it raises one big, so far unanswered question: where does such talent come from? How can someone such as Cicoria, who had undergone no musical training or demonstrated any previous hint of talent, suddenly start composing sonatas and concertos?
The consensus-shattering answer may lie in genetics. “The only way this can be explained,” says Treffert, “is through the genetic transmission of knowledge. We know this is the case in the animal kingdom; creatures manage incredible feats of navigation [without anyone] teaching them how to do it. Someone in the family of a Tommy McHugh must have had these abilities.” This theory vastly expands existing assumptions of what human DNA can do. But even if it can be proved, it’s hard to explain the astonishing capabilities of men like Orlando Serrell.
Serrell is currently out of work, having recently lost his job as a caretaker in Newport News, Virginia. He tells me he had hoped his abilities would open up opportunities, possibly with the FBI or even as a stage novelty act, but after an initial burst of interest, nothing has developed.
“Some people, you know, they lose consciousness, go into a coma, things like that, and when they wake up, they find they are different people,” he says. “But it wasn’t like that with me. I was playing in the park, and someone threw [a] baseball and it hit me at the front of the head, but I wasn’t knocked out. I just lay down and my head hurt bad, but I got up and carried on the game, and it was only about a month later that I found I could do this stuff.”
What Serrell can do is instantaneously put a day to any date since the accident and recall the weather, where he was and what he was doing. Doctors who have studied him say this ability is vastly beyond the capacity of normal human memory. Nothing known to science explains it, and it is hard to see how genetics could.
“I’m the same guy,” he says. “I don’t feel different in any other way. I don’t even think of myself as a savant, I just feel I have a gift that I found by accident. Beyond that I can’t explain it.” Nor, adequately, can Cicoria.
A self-described “rock-and-roll kind of guy”, Cicoria, whose story was recounted in the neurologist Oliver Sacks’s 2007 book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, recovered from the physical effects of the lightning strike but soon began to feel strange activity in his brain: “like it was one of those old-fashioned TV sets that picked up interference, and you had to whack it to get a good picture.”
What came out of the fuzz and crackle was a sudden desire for the finest classical piano music. “I might be a respectable physician on the outside, but inside I’m a biker dude,” he says. “I’d had a couple of music lessons when I was a kid, but that was all. I couldn’t understand why I wanted to hear this stuff. So I went to the music store, and bought some CDs, and then I felt that wasn’t enough and I wanted to play it for myself, so I bought the sheet music and then a piano, and began to learn how to play.
“Then, as I played, other music started coming through in my head, and I understood that I needed to write it down.” Today, Dr Cicoria, 60, is an accomplished composer and pianist who has given dozens of well-received recitals. “Exactly what happened to me, I’ll never know,” he says, “but I’m glad it did.” This is how it tends to be in the world of the savants. Brilliance and talent abound, but no one can quite explain what is going on.
This article also appeared in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday Telegraph. Follow us on Twitter @TelegraphSeven