Acquired Savants

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

No one really knew how horses galloped — did all four hooves leave the ground at the same time? — until Eadweard Muybridge settled the debate with a series of photographs he made in the 1880s. His obsessive interest in capturing the minute details of bodies in motion — that is, his “genius” — may have come from a blow to the head:

His erratic behavior was blamed on a head injury he’d sustained in a serious stagecoach accident that killed one passenger and wounded all the rest. Now, researchers believe that the crash, which gave Muybridge a permanent brain injury, may actually have been partially responsible for endowing him with his artistic brilliance.

Muybridge may have been what psychiatrists call an acquired savant, somebody with extraordinary talent but who wasn’t born with it and who didn’t learn the skills from someplace else later. In fact, Muybridge’s savant abilities had evidently been buried deep in the recesses of his mind the whole time, and the stagecoach incident had simply unlocked them.

It sounds crazy. But Muybridge is actually one of a number of people who’ve miraculously developed artistic, musical, or mathematical abilities as a result of a brain injury. There’s Orlando Serrell, who was struck in the head with a baseball as a 10-year-old and found he could remember the weather for each day following his accident. There’s Derek Amato, who woke up after hitting his head at the bottom of a pool and became a master pianist at 40, despite lacking any sort of musical training. There’s Alonzo Clemens, whose verbal and cognitive abilities stopped developing at the age of three due to a head injury but who can assemble incredibly detailed sculptures of animals in a matter of minutes.

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