What creates a genius? Is it simply a function of having the right brain patterns, or is there a deeper mechanism at work? Just as savants like Daniel Tammet and Alonso Clemons demonstrate superhuman mastery in certain subjects, there have been people throughout history who gained extraordinary abilities from freak accidents. Unfortunately, genius often comes at a price.
It’s a question that’s puzzled scientists and philosophers alike since the dawn of history.
10. Derek Amato
In 2006, a nightmare became real. Derek Amato, a resident of Denver, Colorado, dove into a pool and struck his head on the shallow bottom. He blacked out and woke up in the hospital, disoriented and terrified. It’s the kind of accident every parent fears, an accident that leaves most paralyzed.
And Derek wasn’t immune to the dangers. His head injury left him with massive hearing loss, chronic headaches, and memory problems that still persist to this day. Yet Derek considers the accident the best thing that’s ever happened to him, because it also turned him into a musical prodigy.
In the days after the accident, Derek began to see moving black and white shapes, a “continuous stream of musical notation” flowing behind his closed eyelids. Even though Derek had never been musically inclined, he suddenly had the ability to sit down at a piano and play intricate pieces that take most people years to perfect. Although he doesn’t understand his ability, he says that he’s grateful for it every day.
9. Jason Padgett
Late one night in 2002, a furniture salesman named Jason Padgett was leaving a bar when he was blindsided by two muggers. They knocked him to the ground and kicked him repeatedly in the head. In the midst of the attack, Padgett saw a blinding white flash, and the next thing he knew he was lying on the concrete, dazed and bleeding, just another victim of a senseless act of violence.
The mugging left Padgett with a severe concussion and weird distortions in his vision. Although he could still see normally, there was now a sheen over everything, like every object had been broken down into lines and shapes. A high school dropout, Padgett didn’t immediately realize that the strange things he was seeing were actually geometric representations of mathematical formulas.
Somehow, his brain injury had given him the ability to, well, see math. When researchers imaged Padgett’s brain and showed him a series of equations, the visual processing centers in his brain lit up. His brain was turning the numbers into pictures. Jason Padgett has since enrolled in college to learn more about his condition and the number theory behind his inexplicable visions.
8. Jon Sarkin
For the first three decades of his life, Jon Sarkin was a normal man in a normal world. He had a wife, a child, and a blossoming career as a chiropractitioner. He played golf and kept up with the stock market. Then, one day, he almost died.
During a round of golf in 1988, Sarkin suffered a debilitating brain hemorrhage. He was rushed to the hospital, where his condition worsened to the point that doctors were forced to surgically remove a portion of his brain. When he woke up, the chiropractor was gone. In its place was an artist.
What started as a series of surreal dreams soon transformed into a compulsion to paint. Sarkin quit his job and took up art full time, splitting his attention between painting and sculpting. It wasn’t long before his art–and his story–gained widespread media attention. Somehow, a tiny snip of the brain had turned Jon Sarkin into a completely different person. Now almost 30 years after the incident, Sarkin still paints, and his works have been featured in galleries all around the world.
7. Leigh Erceg
Leigh Erceg was 49-years-old in 2009 when she fell into a ravine on her Colorado ranch. The accident was catastrophic. She sustained injuries to both her head and her spine, and it looked like she was destined to be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Against all expections, Erceg’s spine healed. But her head, now that was a different story.
After the accident, Erceg had no idea who she was. She couldn’t remember her childhood, her mother, or anything about her life before the fall. With the disappearance of her memories, she’d also lost her emotions. Even now, she knows when to smile or laugh but doesn’t entirely understand why she’s doing it.
But almost as if the loss of her past life left a vacant hole to be filled, the accident imbued her with a whole new palette of abilities. In a bizarre combination, she’s taken up art as a way to express her newfound interest in math. When she draws, she says, she’s creating an image based on mathematical equations.
6. Mr. Z
Researchers are still struggling to understand the mechanisms behind the miraculous few who have acquired unexpected abilities from debilitating brain damage, but their lack of knowledge is not from lack of trying. The phenomenon has been recognized for decades, and it doesn’t always lead to happiness.
In the ’80s, a psychologist wrote about his experiences with a patient that he only identified as Mr. Z. When Mr. Z was nine years old, he was shot in the forehead during a home invasion. The bullet completely passed through his head and left the boy partially paralyzed and unable to speak. But while the incident stripped Mr. Z of most forms of logical thought, it left him with a curious ability: He could take apart just about anything and put it together again.
In addition to his mechanical abilities, Mr. Z was able to remember random facts with perfect clarity, such as street names in areas that he’d only visited once. Unfortunately, despite these unusual gifts, Mr. Z continued to struggle with his disabilities well into adult life.
5. Franco Magnani
In the 1960s, an Italian immigrant living in San Francisco began suffering from a strange and sudden illness. Franco Magnani was wracked by fevers that forced him into bed and brought on a state of delirium. While he suffered, he dreamed. He dreamed of his childhood home in Pontito, Italy, which he’d left almost a decade earlier. When he woke up from these episodes, he would paint his dreams, all of them scenes from his childhood.
As it turned out, Magnani was painting perfect, photorealistic snapshots of the village where he grew up, memories which his brain had stored away for years. Somehow, brain damage from his feverish fits–which are now believed to have been a form of epilepsy–had activated something in his brain that allowed him to recall every single detail from these childhood moments.
More than 20 years after Magnani’s illness, a photographer traveled to Pontito and was able to photograph the exact scenes which appeared in Magnani’s paintings.
4. Anthony Cicoria
In 1994, Dr. Anthony Cicoria had just hung up a payphone when a blinding light came out of nowhere, hit the phone, and then rebounded into his face. The impact threw him backward and, by his own account, knocked him out of his body. He remembers looking down at his unconscious self while people rushed over and tried to rescuscitate him. Then, he was slammed back into his body and a world of pain.
He’d just been struck by lightning.
Over the next few months, Anthony Cicoria tried to get back into his normal life, but he felt…strange. He couldn’t seem to focus on work as easily, and his memory was a little spotty. Soon, though, even those problems disappeared, and just when life seemed to have settled, Cicoria was struck again, this time by an insatiable desire to make music.
The desire soon became an obsession. He was hearing music in his dreams, but he didn’t know how to play piano or get the songs out of his head. So the 42-year-old surgeon began teaching himself to play on a borrowed piano, and the more he learned, the more his obsession grew. Every spare moment was spent in music, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched. Even after his wife left him, Cicoria continued to play.
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who studied Cicoria’s condition, believes that the complete change in personality that came over him, along with the newfound gift for music, might have been the result of a temporal-lobe seizure caused by the lightning strike. But even that doesn’t fully explain how such a profound change could have happened.
3. Heather Thompson
In March 2011, Heather Thompson was hit on the head by the rear hatch of her SUV while she was loading groceries. The impact knocked her to the ground and gave her what the doctor’s called “a mild traumatic brain injury.”
It didn’t seem particularly serious, but Thompson never quite felt like herself after that incident. Lights seemed too bright, colors too vivid. She began locking herself in her dark bedroom to escape the overstimulation, abandoning her family and her job as CEO of a local business. She would sleep for most of the day, only for the simplest of tasks to work her back into exhaustion. With a single, careless blow to the head, her life had become a living hell.
Then, a concerned neighbor brought over a set of ragged paintbrushes and suggested she try painting to help her relax. Thompson scoffed at the idea, but gave it a shot…and never stopped. Like Anthony Cicoria and Jon Sarkin, the impact to her head seemed to have jogged her into a completely new personality. Once a driven businesswoman, Thompson divorced her husband, moved out of the city, bought a goat, and took up life as a painter.
In her own words, she’s happier than she’s ever been in her life.
2. Orlando Serrell
It could be said that Orlando Serrell has become the poster boy for acquired savant syndrome. While playing as a boy in 1979, a baseball whacked him on the head. Serrell hit the ground, stunned, and then got up to keep playing ball. He didn’t realize it right away, but his entire life was about to change.
It started with headaches. For days, the 10-year-old boy suffered in silence while his head throbbed with blinding pain. Then, the headaches stopped, and Orlando realized that he could remember everything. He knew what clothes he’d worn, what the weather had been like, and what he’d had for breakfast…for every day of his life.
Besides eidetic memory of the past, the errant baseball had also struck Serrell with the ability to know the future. He’d become a calendar calculator–for any given date, Serrell could instantly calculate the day of the week, even if the date fell hundreds of years in the future. These days, the 10-year-old wunderkind is a 37-year-old man who’s dedicated to helping researchers understand the role brain damage plays in human intelligence.
1. Jim Carollo
When Jim Carollo was 14-years-old, a car accident destroyed his life. His mother was killed in the crash, and Jim lapsed into a coma. Due to the extensive brain injuries he’d suffered, the doctors didn’t think he’d live more than a few weeks.
But against all odds, he did survive. After six weeks, he woke up from the coma and began the long, slow process of physical rehabilitation. Soon, he was able to return to school, and that’s when he realized that he would never be a normal teenager again.
Before the accident, Carollo had had no interest in math; afterward, it came as easily as breathing. Without studying, he aced his high school geometry Mastery test. Then he skipped up to calculus, passing every exam with ease. Memorizing any number was as simple as looking at it. He memorized 200 digits of pi in a little over a day. Beneath every day-to-day activity, numbers were scrolling through Carollo’s head, endless sequences of digits.
Jim Carollo is 39-years-old now, and the numbers are still there. While he went on to build a normal life after the accident, he says that the numbers are calming, like an old friend.