There are many things I would like to be able to do, including painting, singing, ice-skating, and playing the piano (not all at the same time, you understand). Actually, I should probably have qualified the preceding sentence with the adverb “well,” because I already perform all four of these activities badly (some might say “excruciatingly” in the case of my singing). As an aside, if you happen to visit Japan on business, don’t be surprised to find yourself performing Karaoke with your Japanese colleagues. If someone doesn’t sing very well, their friends kindly say they “sing with emotion.” It turns out that I sing with so much emotion I can quickly bring a room of grown men to tears. (On the bright side, I’m rarely asked to mount the stage more than once.) Well, it seems that there’s hope for me yet. I was bouncing around the internet with gusto and abandon (if only I was as enthusiastic about physical exercise) when I saw something that said “Some people suddenly become accomplished artists or musicians with no previous interest or training. Is it possible innate genius lies dormant within everyone?” As we read in the accompanying article — Brain Gain: A Person Can Instantly Blossom into a Savant—and No One Knows Why — there are different forms of savant syndrome. On its own, the term “savant” typically refers to a learned person, especially a distinguished scientist. By comparison, the term “savant syndrome,” which is synonymous with the rather unkind “idiot savant,” refers to someone who has a mental or learning disability, but who is extremely gifted in a particular way (e.g., art, music, memory, mathematics). On occasion, I fear my dear old mother wanted to call me an “idiot savant” (like the time I tied the four corners of a bedsheet to my belt and jumped over the upstairs banister in an attempt to parachute to the ground floor), but she must have been short of time because she omitted the “savant” part. Returning to the aforementioned article, “congenital savant syndrome” refers to someone whose extraordinary abilities manifest themselves in early childhood. By comparison, “acquired savant syndrome” refers to an ordinary person in whom astonishing new abilities appear following a head injury, stroke, or other event involving the central nervous system (CNS).
As one example of sudden savant syndrome, a 28-year-old guy discovered he could play the piano like an expert pianist (Image source:
And then we have “sudden savant syndrome,” in which, as the article says: “[…] an ordinary person with no such prior interest or ability and no precipitating injury or other CNS incident has an unanticipated, spontaneous epiphanylike moment where the rules and intricacies of music, art or mathematics, for example, are experienced and revealed, producing almost instantaneous giftedness and ability in the affected area […]” The article gives several examples, like a 28-year-old guy who saw a piano in a mall and suddenly discovered he could play like an expert pianist (prior to this, he had only been able to pick out simple tunes). The article concludes by saying, “[…] the acquired savant particularly, and now the sudden savant, reinforce the idea that not only is the line between savant and genius a very narrow one but also underscores the possibility such savant abilities may be dormant, to one degree or another, in all of us.” I must admit that I’ve long believed I have unexpected depths and unexplored talents. The trick will be to access these skills without having to do something extreme like administering a mallet to my noggin. How about you? If scientists discovered some way to activate previously unknown abilities, but they could only access one in each person, which one would you choose?