Why some people become sudden geniuses

Saturday, March 10th, 2018

In 1860 Eadweard Muybridge was thrown from a stagecoach — and became a creative genius:

He abandoned bookselling and became a photographer, one of the most famous in the world. He was also a prolific inventor. Before the accident, he hadn’t filed a single patent. In the following two decades, he applied for at least 10.

In 1877 he took a bet that allowed him to combine invention and photography. Legend has it that his friend, a wealthy railroad tycoon called Leland Stanford, was convinced that horses could fly. Or, more accurately, he was convinced that when they run, all their legs leave the ground at the same time. Muybridge said they didn’t.

To prove it he placed 12 cameras along a horse track and installed a tripwire that would set them off automatically as Stanford’s favourite racing horse, Occident, ran. Next he invented the inelegantly named “zoopraxiscope”, a device which allowed him to project several images in quick succession and give the impression of motion. To his amazement, the horse was briefly suspended, mid-gallop. Muybridge had filmed the first movie – and with it proven that yes, horses can fly.

The abrupt turnaround of Muybridge’s life, from ordinary bookseller to creative genius, has prompted speculation that it was a direct result of his accident. It’s possible that he had “sudden savant syndrome”, in which exceptional abilities emerge after a brain injury or disease. It’s extremely rare, with just 25 verified cases on the planet.

There’s Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon who was struck by lightning at a New York park in 1994. It went straight through his head and left him with an irresistible desire to play the piano. To begin with he was playing other people’s music, but soon he started writing down the melodies that were constantly running through his head. Today he’s a pianist and composer, as well as a practicing surgeon.

Another case is Jon Sarkin, who was transformed from a chiropractor into an artist after a stroke. The urge to draw landed almost immediately. He was having “all kinds” of therapy at the hospital – speech therapy, art therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, mental therapy – “And they stuck a crayon in my hand and said ‘want to draw?’ And I said ‘fine’,” he says.


Most strikingly there’s Jason Padgett, who was attacked at a bar in Tacoma, Washington in 2002. Before the attack, Padgett was a college dropout who worked at a futon store. His primary passions in life were partying and chasing girls. He had no interest in maths – at school, he didn’t even get into algebra class.

But that night, everything changed. Initially he was taken to the hospital with a severe concussion. “I remember thinking that everything looked funky, but I thought it was just the narcotic pain shot they gave me” he says. “Then the next morning I woke up and turned on the water. It looked like little tangent lines [a straight line that touches a single point on a curve], spiralling down.”.


There are two leading ideas. The first is that when you’re bashed on the head, the effects are similar to a dose of LSD. Psychedelic drugs are thought to enhance creativity by increasing the levels of serotonin, the so-called “happiness hormone”, in the brain. This leads to “synaesthesia”, in which more than one region is simultaneously activated and senses which are usually separate become linked.


But there is an alternative. The first clue emerged in 1998, when a group of neurologists noticed that five of their patients with dementia were also artists – remarkably good ones. Specifically, they had frontotemporal dementia, which is unusual in that it only affects some parts of the brain. For example, visual creativity may be spared, while language and social skills are progressively destroyed.


To find out what was going on, the scientists performed 3D scans of their patients’ brains. In four out of five cases, they found lesions on the left hemisphere. Nobel Prize-winning research from the 1960s shows that the two halves of the brain specialise in different tasks; in general, the right side is home to creativity and the left is the centre of logic and language.

But the left side is also something of a bully. “It tends to be the dominant brain region,” says Brogaard. “It tends to suppress very marginal types of thinking — highly original, highly creative thinking, because it’s beneficial for our decision-making abilities and our ability to function in normal life.”. The theory goes that as the patients’ left hemispheres became progressively more damaged, their right hemispheres were free to flourish.

This is backed up by several other studies, including one in which creative insight was roused in healthy volunteers by temporarily dialling down activity in the left hemisphere and increasing it in the right. “[the lead researcher] Allen Snyder’s work was replicated by another person, so that’s the theory that I think is responsible,” says Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, who has been studying savant syndrome for decades.


It’s been estimated that as many as one in 10 people with autism have savant syndrome and there’s mounting evidence the disorder is associated with enhanced creativity. And though it’s difficult to prove, it’s been speculated that numerous intellectual giants, including Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Darwin and Michelangelo, were on the spectrum.

One theory suggests that autism arises from abnormally low levels of serotonin in the left hemisphere in childhood, which prevents the region from developing normally. Just like with sudden savant syndrome, this allows the right hemisphere to become more active.

Interestingly, many people with sudden savant syndrome also develop symptoms of autism, including social problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and all-consuming interests.


  1. Duncan Idaho says:

    I have a (sentimental) attachment to the theory that in response to a particularly large shock, the spirit might leave its body, and another, previously disembodied spirit, might jump aboard.

    Or, if this doesn’t happen, that a store of talent from a previous lifetime might somehow be brought to the fore, given that so much pain from the accident is now surrounding the person’s current modus operandi.

    Yes, yes, I was in a cult when I was young. Well spotted. Aspects of the worldview have stayed with me. Possibly because they are true, but possibly just because they helped form my ways of thinking.

  2. Kirk says:

    The so-called “hundredth monkey” effect may be tied in with this stuff, as well.

    There is something going on here, but what it is isn’t clear. The weirder things usually get dismissed because we can’t fit them into our pre-established causal narrative, and we persist in going along in our little ruts of what we think our reality consists of, only occasionally lifting our eyes to see over the edges. Now and again, something anomalous and out of context falls into our particular rut, and we then have to either go around it or finally account for its presence.

    I can think of several dozen explanations for a lot of this stuff, but the question is, which is it, and what are the implications of that specific implication?

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