my brilliant brain
accidental genius (3/3)
Exploring the incredible inner workings of the human brain, this series looks at some remarkable people and poses questions about the origins of genius: are these extraordinary abilities genetic, developed or acquired by accident? This final episode focuses on a rare group of people who have acquired incredible skills by accident – the savant. Among the stories featured are that of George Widener, an autistic man with a talent for numbers; and Tommy McHugh, a Liverpudlian builder who developed an insatiable appetite for art after suffering a brain injury.
Psychologist Darold Treffert of the University of Wisconsin has been studying savants for over 40 years. “A savant by definition,” he explains, “is somebody who has a mental handicap of some sort with… an island of genius.” The difference between a savant and a genius, therefore, is the disability. For George Widener, this disability is autism – a condition that leads to awkwardness and social isolation. At the age of seven, George spotted a calendar and was intrigued by “the magic of the rows of numbers.” Since then, he has found comfort in numbers, compiling lists of figures and calendars spanning centuries. He can now identify the day of the week from any given date.
The most remarkable thing about George’s skill is that nobody has taught him how to perform these calculations. In fact, George claims that there is no calculation involved at all. “I don’t have no formulas,” he explains. “It feels more like I’m lining things up.” Prodigious savants, like George, seem to come with a knowledge of music, maths or art already installed in their minds. So how is it that such people have these exceptional abilities?
Leading neurologist Joy Hirsch works with George to identify the areas of the brain he uses when performing his calculations. While scanning his brain to monitor activity, Hirsch presents her subject with a series of questions. Incredibly, she discovers that George’s brain, while structurally normal, is mysteriously ablaze with activity in unexpected areas. The professor’s results indicate that the brains of savants are wired differently to those of normal people, but such a discovery poses another question: how could a savant’s brain come to be wired differently?
In the case of Tommy McHugh, the rewiring seems to have occurred during a brain injury. Until five years ago, the Liverpudlian builder had never picked up an artist’s brush but, after a major brain haemorrhage nearly killed him, he awoke to a talent he never knew he had. Tommy is now consumed by a powerful compulsion to paint, and has covered the walls of his house with numerous pictures in a variety of styles.
Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Harvard medical school, believes that Tommy’s injury caused an imbalance in activity in his brain. This imbalance led to an outpouring of creativity, normally associated with the right hemisphere of the brain, and a failure to suppress and control such creativity, a trait normally associated with the left hemisphere. Tommy, however, is unperturbed by the change he has seen in himself: “I’m glad it released art rather than negative waves,” he says. “This is beautiful!”
Professor Alan Snyder of the University of Sydney, also an expert in the field of the savant, suggests that as the human brain develops through learning sophisticated concepts like language and reasoning, it blocks out inherent abilities like art. “Our brain deliberately inhibits our access to the details that make up the big picture,” he theorises. In a undamaged brain, therefore, the left hemisphere naturally suppresses the right as it develops. His concept has far-reaching implications, since he believes that the inhibition of the left hemisphere of the brain in an adult – either by accidental means like illness or trauma, or by deliberate use of magnetic impulses – could result in the attainment of genius. “If we had an insight into how they do it,” he says of the talents of the savant, “we can get an insight into creativity.”