When Brain Injury Leads to Brilliance

Meet five people—savants, some call them—whose lives changed irrevocably after brain damage.

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The Mistaken Mathematician

When muggers brutally attacked college dropout and furniture-store employee Jason Padgett, 43, in Tacoma, Washington, on December 13, 2002, they gave him a concussion—and a higher IQ. After the attack, Padgett began to see mathematical formulas and patterns in his surroundings (similar to Nobel Prize–winning mathematician John Nash). Medical tests revealed that his damaged brain is overcompensating in certain areas that most people do not have access to. Now Padgett turns the designs he sees into intricate, hand-drawn diagrams called fractals and sells them online via Fine Art America.

The Instant Beethoven

Derek Amato hit his head in a swimming pool in the autumn of 2006 when he was 39 years old, losing 35 percent of his hearing in one ear and much of his memory. But he gained a miraculous skill: Four days after his accident, Amato sat in a friend’s makeshift music studio and was drawn to an electric keyboard. He had never had the slightest interest in the instrument and couldn’t read sheet music, but that didn’t stop him from playing a spontaneous concerto … for six hours. After consulting a physician, Amato learned that he’d developed acquired savant syndrome, in which brain damage causes dormant skills to emerge.

The Overnight European

Try to follow along: Karen Butler, 60, is from Oregon, not England, but she got her accent from her dental surgeon. In 2009, Butler awoke from dental implant surgery with an accent that’s a bit British with a Transylvanian twang, and it stuck. This phenomenon, known as foreign accent syndrome (a condition so rare that only about 60 cases have been documented worldwide), is thought to stem from a minor injury to the part of the brain responsible for language pattern and tone.

The Human Calendar

At the age of ten, Virginia native Orlando Serrell was accidentally hit in the head with a baseball and developed a headache. After the ache cleared up a few days later, Serrell could spit out the day of the week for any date since August 17, 1979, the day he was struck. Serrell, now 45, has what’s called hyperthymestic syndrome, the ability to recall a large catalog of autobiographical events.

The Accidental Artist

At the age of 36, Massachusetts chiropractor Jon Sarkin suffered a stroke and became obsessed with drawing. He had never shown any talent for art yet became so fixated on it that he would rush off in the middle of family dinners to sketch symbols, draw objects, and paint for hours, as ideas continuously came to him. He tried to return to his chiropractic practice, but he couldn’t stop doodling. His distraction has paid off: The New Yorker, GQ, and other publications have featured his dramatic and ghostly drawings, his paintings have sold for up to $10,000 each, and Tom Cruise’s production company bought the rights to his life story.

Tormented By Genius – Jon Sarkin from Jon Sarkin on Vimeo.

Sources: Popular Science, the Daily Mail, cracked.com, ABC News

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest