There are a number of intriguing examples of notable creative ability and expression related to changes in brain structure and function from disease, stroke, injury, developmental disability or other conditions.
Darold Treffert, M.D., one of the foremost experts on savantism notes, “Savant syndrome is a rare but remarkable condition in which people with developmental disabilities, including autism or other central nervous system disorders, have some remarkable islands of genius that stand in stark contrast to their overall handicap.”
He refers to three levels of savant syndrome: “splinter skills…youngsters, or adults, who memorize sports trivia or birthdays or may even do some calendar-calculating…Then there’s a second level of savants that I call talented savants…Generally, they are more highly honed into one particular skill, such as music or art, for example.
“And then there’s a third level, which I call prodigious savants. These are people whose skills are so spectacular that, if they were not disabled, they would be at a genius level.
From article: Conversations on Creativity with Darold Treffert, by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman.
The image is from Dr. Treffert’s book Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome.
In his article Is There A Little Rain Man In Each Of Us?, Dr. Treffert asks if it is possible “to tap and use those still existent, but less frequently used, capacities and circuits, with some of their savant-like characteristics, in those of us more wedded to left brain capacity and higher level memory?”
He is convinced there is that possibility, and cites several examples of “acquired savants” – “previously non-disabled persons who after some injury or disease begin to demonstrate some, until then, dormant savant characteristics and capacities.”
In one case “musical genius appeared at age 3 following meningitis.” And in another case, “Alonzo’s sculpting talent emerged following a head injury as a young child.”
In another post (with a video), Savant abilities and learning differences relate to developing multiple talents, I quote Daniel Tammet, an author with autistic savant syndrome, who thinks the astounding abilities he and others have are not due to some cerebral or genetic fluke, but based on an associative form of thinking and imagination.
He thinks differences between savant and non-savant minds have been exaggerated, to the detriment of how most of us value our own abilities and develop our talents. “Every brain is amazing,” he notes.
Struck by lightning
In his book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” neurologist Oliver Sacks relates the story of a physician who was struck by a bolt of lightning, and then experienced an obsession with learning to play classical piano music, something that had never interested him.
From my post Oliver Sacks on music and the brain.
The book also includes stories of “an entire group of children with Williams syndrome, who are hypermusical from birth; people with ‘amusia,’ to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans, and a man whose memory spans only seven seconds—for everything but music.”
In her article After brain damage, the creative juices flow for some (Los Angeles Times, May 20 2011), Emily Sohn notes “Many people who have suffered brain damage turn to creating art.”
She cites the example of Katherine Sherwood, who “was just 44 when a hemorrhage in her brain’s left hemisphere paralyzed the right side of her body — forever changing her artwork.
“Before the stroke in 1997, her mixed-media paintings featured strange and cryptic images: medieval seals, transvestites, bingo cards…
“After the stroke, she could no longer paint on canvases mounted vertically, so she laid them flat…She began to use different, less toxic types of paint, which led to new kinds of visual effects.”
Sherwood said her attitudes had also changed: “The paint I was now using started to crack — and before the stroke, I would’ve been horrified,” she says. “But after the stroke, I thought it looked interesting and, I believed, was part of the metaphorical language of the painting. Also, I really saw the paintings confirming my ability to live.”
The article links to a slide show with work by Sherwood and others: “Artistic expressions born of brain disorders.”
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Last reviewed: 26 May 2011