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FACT S S O RO MA NTI C O N B I O LO GY

What It’s Like Being a Sudden Savant
POSTED BY TANYA BASU ON APR 01, 2016

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was a CEO and a nationally respected business strategist. they argue. But one day. sometimes at the prodigious level. “And. “Everything in my life has changed. to understanding how learned concepts get in our way. Thompson initially laughed at the thought of painting—she’d never been an artist. Lemke had no musical training and was blind. and then felt an inexplicable need to sleep— which she did. I had to paint. the only comfortable place she could be was in her dark bedroom. she felt elated.” Thompson is an “acquired savant” whose remarkable experience can help shed light on the roots of human creativity. when she lifted the hatch of her SUV. by any measure.” The path to enhancing creativity.” Now.” she said. and likens the experience to falling down a rabbit hole and emerging somewhere else. “like I was a drunk. “but I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. She scooped her daughter.B efore her accident Heather Thompson was. still strapped into the shopping cart. (Treffert was a consultant on 1989’s Rain Man. they have musical or artistic abilities. Then. and her now seven-year-old daughter. When he was 14.” she said. “giggly. cats. “Painting was unfiltered.” Treffert said. Thompson went to the grocery store and. married.” Thompson said.” She’s divorced. anything—walking.” She went to the doctor and. 2011. “I was at the pinnacle of my career. in part. “I’ve just deepened —I still struggle and am healing. groggy. goofy. driving. no longer a strategist. a fellow Wisconsinite. she couldn’t. Lemke heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.) “These are ordinary people who have a head injury”—typically on the left side of the brain—“or stroke or some other central nervous system incident. ‘You have a mild traumatic brain injury. “It’s been a very painful metamorphosis. on March 6. She woke sitting and delirious. she had to draw clock hands in the 11 o’clock position. which brought savants to a mainstream audience. She lived just outside Seattle’s urban sprawl. a bulldog. Thompson’s first thought was that she’d lost her teeth. his eyes were surgically removed. and what good could painting do? When she started.’” It caused months of sensory overstimulation. drove home. “It poured out of me. due to glaucoma. wailing. In the early 1980s. and lives in a rural town on an acre lot. Savants had fascinated Treffert since his time as a medical resident. She then heard her daughter. 1 for the time on TV. one can imitate the autistic mind. the adrenaline hit. At that time. By using “raw perception” instead. . Thompson said. “Immediately. “That’s when the doctor said to me. the hatch collapsed on her head. explains psychiatrist Darold Treffert. a neighbor brought over some old paintbrushes. She looks after a baby goat.” Thompson said. write Gobet and colleagues.” she said. a rescued horse. however. all of a sudden. But I could sit and draw with pastels for three hours and not crash. and had a two-year-old daughter. he began to study savant neurology. Treffert was stirred by a piano recital by Leslie Lemke. but after meeting Lemke. for three hours. to test her cognition. very successful. without warning. The impact had Thompson buckled to the ground in eyeshattering pain. Shortly after his premature birth.” she said. a Wisconsin psychiatrist and savant expert. comes down. Later that night he astounded his foster parents by playing a near flawless rendition of the concerto on the family piano. doing a puzzle—made me go back to bed.

“I can feel each component of the music. It’s as if the person fell asleep and woke up the next morning with extraordinary talent. and thus be more creative. comes down. “Do we all have this dormant capacity? I don’t know. Thompson and Adiv’s abilities make the existence of an innate. Ken Adiv. and colleagues. In 2005. but has met with Tel Aviv University music faculty. where Treffert documents savants. In a 2014 paper titled “Designing a ‘better’ brain: insights from experts and savants. can help them “explore new conceptual space. then 26-year-old law student at Tel Aviv University. it is now a sort of sixth sense. These individuals find that they abruptly have some kind of artistic or musical ability. Marshall and J. who found his abilities uncanny. like harmony. By using “raw perception” instead. I can see each component of it. like Thompson. they write. The first is the acquired savant. Treffert heard from another sudden savant.” Treffert said. I started playing like I had been a well-educated pianist.” He hasn’t gotten a full medical exam. type is the sudden savant. a musical score—and give it a particular meaning. like Thompson. Treffert realized there were two different kinds of savants. and the second. Adiv was with his friends at a wine store. Thompson. but at the same time also very natural. like Lemke. universal creative capacity plausible. but he plays the piano for hours nonetheless. they write. “All of a sudden.determined to understand how powerful gifts like Lemke’s could be potentially unlocked in a normal human being.” Fernand Gobet. one can imitate the autistic mind.” he told the Wisconsin Medical Society. they argue. “Creativity can be boosted by decreasing conceptual processing and increasing the role of low-level perceptual processing. Unlike normal people.” For that work. in part. and Lemke are capable of a seemingly effortless creativity. while still enjoying the unified whole.” he said.” . free of prior interpretations. they don’t develop “cognitive mind sets.” they write. For me. for example. Adiv. From his research.” Encouraging this in nonsavants. and he started playing songs he loved but had no idea he could play. in other words. doesn’t exactly have a compulsion. “But I believe there are ways we can make ourselves smarter and access these gifts. a cognitive scientist at the University of Liverpool. which had a piano.” Once we identify some pattern—say. Now savant researchers and psychologists are wondering how a richer understanding of savant neurology could help engineer a higher-quality human brain. it’s hard to discard it and imagine it meaning something radically different. write Gobet and colleagues. This difference in pattern recognition might explain why people like Adiv. One day. For Treffert. The path to enhancing creativity. melody. and play with them in my head.” “The history of human thought provides us with creativity examples where the inhibiting-concept strategy was used (possibly unconsciously) and worked. articulates savant-hood in sensual terms. When bacteriologists Barry J. note that one “bottleneck to creativity is our inability to see things in a new light. who had previously only dabbled in guitar. describing the experience as “flowing.” they say. that helicobacter pylori caused stomach ulcers—rather than excess acid—“they had to jettison a whole raft of concepts. rarer. Autistic savants tend to recognize patterns but they don’t try to apply meaning to them.” Adiv. Robin Warren proposed. “It does feel very amazing. to understanding how learned concepts get in our way. they won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

JO I N T H E D ISC U S S IO N 2 Comments 1 ! Nautilus ⤤ Share ♥ Recommend 2 Login Sort by Best Join the discussion… Neeti Sinha • 2 days ago Nice! especially the notion of "learned concepts get in our way. It would be interesting to know if there is any research being done on this phenomena. and Ramanujan are some examples coming to mind.Tanya Basu is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who writes about how humans interact with each other and whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and in Science of Us." History is full of examples where brilliancy sprouted outside the mainstream. Niels Abel. Evariste Galois. △ ▽ ✉ Subscribe • Reply • Share › d Add Disqus to your site Add Disqus Add % Privacy R E L AT E D I S S U E 0 3 4 : A D A P TAT I O N F IT T ING IN SE E F U L L I S SU E R EL ATED FACT S S O RO MA N TI C . that was pivotal to move the field ahead. but the piano player apparently had no such cause. 2 COM ME N TS . Follow her on Twitter @mstanyabasu. Too much taming is injurious to original thinking! 1△ ▽ • Reply • Share › James Anderson • 2 days ago Are there any theories on what would cause these cases of "sudden savants"? Heather Thompson's case seems to have involved some kind of neurological response to her accident and brain injury. Einstein.

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