Concussions, Creativity, and Cunning: The Surprising Link

young girl writing on chalkboardSavants face intellectual or developmental challenges, but display impressive abilities in one or more areas of knowledge. For example, someone with autism might be unable to speak, but could compose symphonies and play dozens of instruments. This person would be considered an autistic savant. The condition usually begins at birth, but the story of a man whose bar fight turned him into a savant suggests that a brain injury can lead to similar symptoms.

From College Dropout to Math Genius

Struck by Genius, Jason Padgett’s recent memoir, tells the tale of a man who developed amazing abilities after a fight. Padgett had always struggled academically, and he dropped out of college, but he began seeing strange shapes and patterns after he sustained a concussion during a fight. Padgett says that these patterns help him to see mathematical relationships he previously would not have recognized. He now spends much of his time trying to solve complex mathematical problems, and is pursuing a degree in math and a career as a mathematician.

Acquired Savant Syndrome

Padgett’s abilities might seem impressive. But the changes he has experienced are an actual medical condition called acquired savant syndrome. This condition comes with a downside—Padgett is more introverted, struggles with social interactions, and is plagued by fears of germs. Only about 40 people in the world have acquired savant syndrome, but each of them reports symptoms similar to Padgett’s—changes in personality accompanied by remarkable abilities.

Because the condition is so rare, it’s still not well understood. There’s no predictable pattern of brain damage that leads to the syndrome, for example, and people with the condition manifest an assortment of abilities and personality changes rather than one single pattern. One theory argues that basic skills such as logic actually undermine creative abilities.

When brain regions that affect these areas are damaged, creativity can take center stage. Savants—even those who display powerful academic skills—usually are highly creative. Padgett, for example, sees math as a series of pictures and patterns rather than an endless line of numbers, so unlocked creativity might help explain the changes in his thinking and behavior.

Other researchers believe that acquired savant syndrome is a dramatic case of neuroplasticity, which occurs when the brain adjust the way it functions based on the environment. Perhaps some people’s brains overreact to an injury by “turning on” previously unknown abilities.

Between one and three million people experience a concussion every year, and for most people the event is catastrophic. It can take months or even years to recover. Some people never regain the abilities they had before the injury. For a slim minority, though, a fight or fall seems to be a chance at a new life.

References:

  1. Concussion facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.concussiontreatment.com/concussionfacts.html
  2. Lewis, T. (2014, May 12). A man became a math wiz after suffering brain injuries. Researchers think they know why. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/a-man-became-a-math-wiz-after-suffering-brain-injuries-researchers-think-they-know-why/2014/05/12/88c4738e-d613-11e3-95d3-3bcd77cd4e11_story.html
  3. Piore, A. (2013, February 19). When brain damage unlocks the genius within. Retrieved from http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-02/when-brain-damage-unlocks-genius-within?page=0%2C0

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  • Elaine

    Elaine

    May 22nd, 2014 at 4:31 AM

    Now I am very interested in reading this book because it sounds like something straight out of a movie, not something that could have really happened to someone!
    Just think I gave birth and swear that from that moment forward I started losing IQ points… he gets a concussion and gains them exponentially.
    Amazing

  • avery P

    avery P

    May 22nd, 2014 at 2:25 PM

    Wouldn’t you think that in some ways this means that any of us have this ability to do these things but that for most of us it would take that eprfect storm of events to trigger our brains into thinking that way?

  • Landon

    Landon

    May 27th, 2014 at 4:25 AM

    I am sort of surprised at this… if anything I always think of multiple concussions taking away your ability to think and to focus and not give you the ability to tap into a part of your intellect that you may not have been using before the trauma. This is interesting, how this doesn’t happen all the time but that there are very well documanted cases like this one that show that this is at least a possibility in some people.

  • Ron

    Ron

    May 29th, 2014 at 2:19 PM

    Makes you sort of wish that there was a way to simulate the neuroplasticity without having to inflict some damage to get to that point.

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