The human mind is full of mysteries, and the mind of the savant is no exception. Some of the greatest geniuses of all times are regarded as savants, and many are linked with a history of mental disorder.
Leonardo da Vinci, for example, appeared to have had dyslexia, as he kept copious notes, written backwards and upside-down. Coinciding with his gradual hearing loss beginning at the age of 27, Ludwig van Beethoven is believed to have suffered bipolar disorder and severe depression. Although Albert Einstein was never diagnosed with a mental disorder, autism experts today believe that he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome.
Savants typically appear among individuals with developmental disorders, with up to 50 percent being afflicted with autism spectrum disorder. The extremely successful 1988 film Rainman, featuring an autistic adult (played by Dustin Hoffman) with extraordinary mathematical capabilities, shed limelight on a group that had hitherto been ignored. While it may have had stereotypifying effects, the film also generated an instant visibility and awareness for the autistic community.
While the other 50 percent of savants are comprised mainly of individuals with different developmental disorders, the following cases of spontaneous savants demonstrate that the condition will, very occasionally, pop up in just about anyone, at any time.
Cases of spontaneous savants among “neurotypical” adults
Psychiatrist Darold Treffert wrote online, recounting several cases of sudden savant syndrome within three people.
In Israel, a 28-year-old man, with the initials K. A., happened to be at a mall when he stumbled upon a piano. Before this incident, the extent of his musical capabilities was that he could play “simple popular songs” from memory.
However, when he got on that piano, he started to play “like a well-educated pianist,” bedazzling his friends as he suddenly developed a rather miraculous talent for the instrument. He was able to recognize major scales and minor scales of the piano and coordinate his fingers through the keys. He knew the chords immediately as well, allowing him to “harmonize the scales” and play “melody by interval recognition.”
K. A. has no known development disorder of any kind. He is now an attorney, and performs music occasionally.
Another case involves a woman with the initials of M. F., who suddenly woke up one night with an “urgent need” to draw triangles. By the next morning, she had drawn exceedingly complex designs and was itching to draw more.
Over the next three days, she continued at “an intense level,” producing a masterpiece she called “the Mayan.” She did all of this without any prior training at all.
M. F. continues to create stunning artwork, spending around eight hours a day while she works as a real estate agent.
Another woman, by the name of S. S., started to “see colors” from things she’d never considered before when she reached her mid-40s.
This “new vision” pushed her to try and express it by drawing a gorilla from a photograph. The results astounded her friends and family. Much like the other cases, she had no prior experience or training with art, nor any development disorder.
Since then, S. S. has continued to draw with pastels, and is so drawn into her artwork that she worries she could be distracted from other things in life.
Still a mystery
While many people are able to master a new skill late in their lives, what makes savants unique is that their skills come out of nowhere – the individuals suddenly grasp complicated subjects or obtain precision skills with no prior interest or training.
While none of the three cases above were diagnosed with autism or any other mental injury, disorder or condition, they did tend to have obsessive-compulsive (OCD) components, with a drastic need to invest in their new gifts. This also came with the fear that said gift would cause others to shun them, accusing them of “losing their minds.”
According to the SSM Health Treffert Center, up to 10 percent of people with autism, and less than one percent of those with other “intellectual and/or developmental disabilities” exhibit some degree of savant skills. Thus, although not all savants are mentally impaired, neither are all the mentally impaired savants, although those with autism seem to have a considerable predisposition.
There is currently not a single theory that suggests how savant skills are forged in our minds.
Author Daniel Tammet, a savant himself, said in a documentary, “The line between profound talent and profound disability seems to be really a surprisingly thin one. Who knows [what] there may be hidden within everyone that can be tapped in some way.”
Ila Bonczek contributed to this report.