An article by Mo Constandi from THE GUARDIAN, 24 September 2016:
Do Our Brains Have Extraordinary Untapped Powers?
On 13 September, 2002, 31-year-old Jason Padgett, a furniture salesman from Washington, was beaten and mugged by two men after leaving a karaoke bar. He survived the vicious attack, but was left unconscious, and sustained a severe concussion. Soon afterwards, he noticed that his vision changed. He also realized he had developed remarkable mathematical abilities.
Padgett began to see patterns in everything he looked at, and to draw complex geometric figures, grids and fractals. "I see shapes and angles everywhere in real life," Padgett explained later. "It's just really beautiful."
He seemed to understand the mathematical nature of the universe intuitively, despite the fact that, having previously dropped out of university, he had little formal academic training. He decided to return to university to study number theory.
Padgett's is a case of "acquired savant syndrome [ED: no acronym PLEASE!]" a condition in which brain damage of some kind unlocks prodigious mental abilities. To date, fewer than 100 such cases have been identified; their existence has, however, led some researchers to argue that there is a hidden genius within all of us -- and also to look for ways in which this latent potential could be unlocked.
Savant syndrome came into the public eye with Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the autistic savant Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 film RAIN MAN. Researchers believe that at least one in 10 people with autism have some savant capability. Acquired savant syndrome is, however, extremely rare.
"I've been keeping track of acquired savant cases that come to my attention, and I'm up to about 70 cases now," says psychiatrist Darold Treffert, who has been investigating savant syndrome for over 50 years. "That number is based on people who write to me, or doctors who write to me about their patients. Only about 25 of these cases have been documented in the scientific literature so far."
The causes of acquired savant syndrome vary widely, as do the outcomes. There is, for example, the case of Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon from New York, who discovered a passion for playing the piano after being struck by lightning, or that of Tommy McHugh, who began to paint and write poetry after a stroke. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California in San Francisco have been documenting the emergence of visual creativity and artistic talent in patients with frontotemporal dementia.
"The most common ability to emerge is art, followed by music," says Treffert, "but I've had cases where brain damage makes people suddenly interested in dance, or in Pinball Wizard."
Treffert explains this in terms of neuroplasticity (how the brain adapts in response to injury and other experiences). "Following an injury to the brain, there's recruitment of undamaged cortex from elsewhere in the brain, then there's rewiring to that undamaged area, and a release of dormant potential. It's a compensatory mechanism involving areas that may have been dormant, or areas that are `stolen' and their function changed."
Despite the various causes of the brain damage, and the different outcomes of the injuries, brain scans show that most people with acquired savant syndrome have sustained damage towards the front of the left temporal lobe. These observations led Treffert and others to speculate that they might be able to induce savant-like capabilities in people by temporarily inactivating that brain region under experimental conditions.
Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney in Australia, has been testing this idea. In one small study published in 2003, Snyder and his colleagues found that inhibiting this brain region with magnetic pulses led to small improvements in the artistic and proofreading abilities of some participants. Their subsequent studies show that the same treatment can induce savant-like number skills in volunteers, significantly improving their ability to accurately guess the number of items shown to them on a computer screen, and can also reduce the likelihood of recalling false memories.
According to Snyder, people with savant capabilities have privileged access to sensory information that does not normally reach conscious awareness, due to a lack of inhibition from the left frontal lobe. This could explain why autistic savants often concentrate on the finer details of things rather than seeing the bigger picture, and why brain damage and experimental inhibition of the left temporal lobe might "unlock" savant-like capabilities.
"I think there's hidden potential within us all, in varying degrees and types," says Treffert. "Talent is distributed in all of us in different ways. Some of us are athletic, some of us mathematical; some of us artistic, and others aren't. Some of us are musical, but some of us are just good, while some of us are exceptional."
Magnetic brain stimulation is just one potential way of unlocking this hidden potential. "Another way is to do it chemically," Treffert continues. "We know that amphetamines have useful effects on short-term memory, but the problem is that they're highly addictive. In the same way, psychedelic drugs release all sorts of things -- some of them good, some of them not so good."