Falling Down a Mountain May Make You a Genius

The lesser known savants

Posted Mar 10, 2015

Berit Brogaard
Source: Berit Brogaard

On Friday, September 13, 2002, thirty-two-year-old Jason Padgett was attacked by two men as he was leaving a karaoke bar. He was struck twice on the back of the head and lost consciousness for a few moments. The next thing he remembered was being on his knees, as one of the men struck him again and again on the right side of the head.

The incident changed Jason profoundly. He describes his newfound abilities and personality changes in his autobiography Struck By Genius (written with Maureen Seaberg).

The book will soon appear as a major Sony movie, staring Channing Tatum.

Jason's story is unique. But there are other less known cases of people who develop remarkable abilities following brain injury or disease.

For much of his life Tommy McHugh was a petty criminal and a heroin addict. Later he managed to clean up his act and became a builder. When he was fifty-one, he was using the bathroom as he was getting ready for work. He was interrupted by a knock on the door, which caused him to try too hard to move his bowels. The strain led to a sudden increase in blood pressure, and he felt a sudden sharp pain inside his head. Blood began running from his nose, eyes, and ears, and he collapsed to the floor. It turned out that he’d suffered strokes in the temporal lobes on both sides of the head and the frontal lobes in the front of the head. It took five hours for surgeons to stop the bleeding but, miraculously, he survived.

After the surgery Tommy complained about dissociative disorder, previously known as “multiple personality disorder.” Those with the condition alternate between two or more distinct personalities, usually with impaired recall of the “others.” He complained that he felt that he had many people living inside him. “My brain is split in invisible wedges/Leaving many Tommy’s on weak crumbling edges,” he later wrote in a poem.

When Tommy returned home about two weeks after surgery, he found himself having a sudden urge to write. Before the stroke he had had no interest in the arts. Now, he had an irrepressible urge to be creative. But he had to relearn many skills, including writing. Luckily, his brain injury had not caused any dementia, nor had it impaired his ability to speak. After he relearned to write he started filling notebooks with poetry. Then he realized that he had an urge to paint. In the following months, he drew hundreds of sketches, mainly of asymmetric faces. He then made large-scale paintings on the walls of his house, sometimes covering whole rooms. He could not stop painting. He was obsessed. Eighteen hours of painting a day was the norm. Neurologist Alice Flaherty at Harvard Medical School and imaging specialist Mark Lythgoe at University College London, who did a psychiatric evaluation of Tommy, found that the stroke had given rise to cognitive and verbal disinhibition.[i] When Tommy sees or hears something, it triggers a flooding of associations that he cannot easily inhibit. He uses his art partially as an outlet for these associations.

One of our most recent subjects, Tom Jacobson, also had his brain seriously beaten. Tom graduated high school in 1975 with a 1.25 GPA. School was the last thing on his mind. In 1977 he was testing out a prototype hang glider that caused him to crash, leaving him with a severe concussion and a badly broken jaw. About a week after he left the hospital, as he was starting to recover, he announced to his parents that he wanted to go to college. His parents were baffled, as college hitherto had been the least likely path for Tom. But Tom had changed. He moved through junior college in three semesters, completing calculus with an A, and entered law school at the age of twenty-one. After reading about complex system theory, a field that seeks to unify the sciences with mathematical theory, Tom began seeing connections between chaotic and complex systems and cosmology and is now recognized for his contributions to astrophysics, despite never having obtained a degree in physics.

Patrick Fagerberg acquired savant abilities while partaking in less dramatic activities. He was attending a concert in Austin, Texas, when a thirty-foot steel camera boom fell, hitting him directly on the head. His traumatic brain injury ended his successful law career, but during the following year he suddenly developed an urge to paint—and displayed an extraordinary talent for it. Painting became his life. And the world is starting to notice. Gremillion & Co, a major gallery in Houston, Texas, recently accepted him as a client and is going to show his art. Patrick says that he thinks about painting all of his waking hours. Not a moment goes by when it is not on his mind.

And then there is Leigh Erceg, a 46 year old female, who has literally become a different person after a dramatic accident. On October 11, 2009 she fell down an inclined steep slope, hit her head on numerous rocks, and sustained gashes from those impacts. She was flown to a trauma hospital and had to have facial reconstruction and tooth implants. After she recovered, things took a new turn. She emerged from the accident with new skills. She was previously a farmer. In fact, she was feeding chickens in Colorado when she fell down the steep slope. After the incident she suddenly saw the world differently. She had no desire to look after farm animals, or any other animal for that matter. Instead she took up painting. She also writes poetry, quickly picks up foreign languages and has acquired increased musical abilities and sound-color synesthesia.

In the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research, we are currently exploring these and other cases of acquired extraordinary abilities by artificially introducing similar conditions using drugs.