Becoming a genius the hard way

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There’s an interesting article in The Atlantic on people who develop a certain genius or talent after getting a head injury or while suffering from some kinds of neurodegenerative disease. They’re called “acquired savants.”

It happens rarely, though now scientists are trying to replicate these instances by using technologies that temporarily mimic (in some ways) the effects of brain injury.

Returning to the point that it happens rarely – why does it happen to some (very few) people and not to others? One suggestion is that among people with degenerative brain disease it occurs when the damage to the brain is relatively contained, as with frontotemporal dementia, and not spread throughout the brain as it is with Alzheimer’s for example. What about when it happens after head injuries? A guy hits his head on the bottom of a swimming pool and becomes a gifted pianist in spite of no musical training. Why him? What happened in his brain that doesn’t happen in so many other cases of head injury? Does it depend in part on how contained the damage is?

Researchers suggest that as other parts of the brain try to compensate for the injured area, sometimes these abilities arise. Maybe other parts of the brain try to “take over” for the damaged area and in consequence start to function in new, possibly unexpected ways. Maybe the brain can’t regain any of the lost function from the damaged area but tries to make better use of what remains, resulting in these isolated and highly specialized abilities.

A steep price can be paid for these enhanced talents. The article links to a bio of Alonzo Clemens:

Alonzo Clemons can’t read, write or drive a car, but there is one thing he can do like no one else: he can see an animal and, in less than an hour, turn a lump of clay into an incredibly accurate three dimensional sculpture.

Clemens suffered a brain injury at a very young age and has strong cognitive disabilities. But he has this gift too. Would the gift have developed to that extent without the severe injury? What a price to pay, though at least he has that gift; others in his circumstances have the severe cognitive impairments without the brilliant talent at sculpting.

It’s fascinating how unpredictable our brains can be. Usually people anticipate only negative changes after a brain injury. The textbook head injury case that probably every psychology and neuroscience student has come across is Phineas Gage, a railway worker who suffered a brain injury when a pipe blasted through his brain. He survived the immediate injury, but his personality reportedly changed – he became wild, reckless, more uninhibited and irresponsible. But there’s a debate regarding the extent of his wild behavior and for how long it persisted, with some evidence suggesting that he improved with time and was able to regain some equilibrium. That in and of itself is an amazing feat – to survive and keep functioning after such a trauma, and to be able to cope with radical changes to personality. We don’t fully understand how that happens, and why some people can survive and more or less function, while others never regain function and still others decline immediately and die. Gage himself died about twelve years after his accident, after suffering terrible convulsions. In any case he didn’t start composing operas. He didn’t develop any special previously undemonstrated talents. Just living after what happened to him was amazing enough.

The brain is powerful and delicate; incredibly fragile but also resilient to varying extents depending on the individual and the circumstances. What happens after brain damage can depend on where the brain has been damaged, but it also has to do with the way that all the parts of the brain are connected. No two brains are alike. Disturbing that web of connections can yield predictable (usually tragic) results, and other times can also give rise to something unexpected.

[There’s some good discussion in the comments section of the Atlantic article on how acquired savants might suddenly have the knowledge to sculpt or play piano when they weren’t trained before or didn’t necessarily exhibit those talents before. The article brings up the idea of “genetic memory” and that’s what the commenters are picking over.]

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