What Is Acquired Savant Syndrome?

A traumatic injury to one part of the brain can often unlock hidden talents in another part. (Photo: Doggygraph/Shutterstock).

hile playing baseball with friends, 10-year-old Orlando Serrell dashed to first base. The careening ball hit him on the left side of his head, sending Orlando to the ground. He was momentarily unconscious but got up, brushed himself off, and continued to play. His head hurt for a long time, and when the headaches finally subsided, he realized his brain had changed.

Orlando had an uncanny ability to do complex mathematical calculations, but he could also remember the weather, where he was, and what he was doing every single day since the accident.

Orlando has what researchers call "acquired savant syndrome." He's one of just a few people who they believe developed mathematical, musical or artistic abilities as a result of a serious brain injury.

Savants are people with remarkable creative or intellectual abilities who may have developmental disabilities and also experience difficulties with simple tasks or human interactions. There are two types of savants. Congenital savants are born with their brilliant talents or they emerge sometime during childhood. Acquired savants experience the emergence of some dormant capacity after some central nervous incident, such as a head injury or a stroke.

Wisconsin psychiatrist Darold Treffert is one of the most well-known researchers on the subject. He keeps a registry of known savants. Savants are very rare; acquired savants are even more uncommon. Treffert told The Atlantic that of the 330 savants from around the world on his list, only 30 of them had acquired their abilities instead of being born with them.

These "accidental geniuses" have an array of amazing stories.

A head injury at age 3 left Alonzo Clemons (right) with a severe developmental disability. But he developed an amazing artistic ability to quickly create intricate animal sculptures.

Derek Amato, 39, suffered a serious concussion after slamming his head onto the concrete floor of a pool. The sales trainer experienced hearing loss, headaches and memory loss but there was one more unusual side effect from his injury. Amato — who had never had musical training — acquired a new and surprising ability to play the piano. He is now a master pianist.

An elderly woman who had never painted before became a remarkable artist after the onset of dementia. Another elderly patient with dementia has a similar sudden onset of ability, but in music.

A 56-year-old builder, who had no interest or skills in art, became a poet, a painter and a sculptor overnight following a stroke.

What makes it happen

Acquired savant syndrome is triggered when there is injury to some area of the brain, often the left hemisphere, and there is still intact tissue elsewhere in the brain, often the right hemisphere. The rewiring of that intact tissue somehow releases the dormant potential in an individual.

The interesting question, according to Treffert, is whether that dormant potential exists within every person and, if so, can it be triggered outside the confines of a catastrophic brain injury?

"What it means to me is that we don’t start life with a blank disc and become whatever we put on that disc in terms of experience or education. Rather the brain comes loaded with all sorts of software," he told Smile TV in a recent interview.

The acquired savant demonstrates what he calls the genetic transmission of knowledge. The rules of math, the rules of music, the rules of art are transmitted genetically, says Treffert.

"Some people say we use less than 10 percent of our brain capacity. Based on my work with acquired savants, that is an underestimate of the tremendous capacity of the brain to store, retrieve and release dormant potential," he says. "And our challenge now is to be able to tap that potential in unobtrusive ways so we can all reach our maximum ability."

Watch a video about Amato's story in the video below: