Can brain damage lead to extraordinary art?

By: Jacob Silverman

Savant Syndrome and Art

David Madison/Stone/Getty Images

Savant syndrome often appears in childhood, frequently as a result of autism but sometimes after an illness, stroke or seizure. The condition is characterized by remarkable artistic, musical or mathematical abilities, and often accompanied by brain damage, low IQ, difficulty communicating and other disabilities. One common form of savant syndrome is the musical savant who has extraordinary musical ability combined with blindness and mental retardation [source: Treffert]. Only 10 percent of autistics have heightened abilities [source: Fox].

Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic savant nicknamed "the human camera," can paint uncannily detailed vistas from memory [source: Wansell]. He also has perfect pitch -- perhaps the only savant with extraordinary talents in two fields [source: H.W. Wilson]. Noted neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks called Wiltshire's progress in basic communication (he didn't say his first word until age 8 and couldn't cross the street on his own until he was in his teens), combined with his status as a world-renowned artist, a "miracle" [source: H.W. Wilson].


There are varying theories as to why savants perform so magnificently in art or math with massively damaged brains. One acknowledged component is the obsessive focus that all savants seem to share. It's a characteristic that stems from how the autistic brain develops, in which neurons in areas affecting emotion and social interaction don't fully develop or form proper connections. Consequently, many autistics have difficulty engaging with the world but find comfort in repeating certain tasks, such as drawing.

A related theory attests that savants engage in compulsive learning, obsessively studying a concept or skill. Calendar savants can assign a day of the week to a date hundreds of years in the past or future. Some of these savants have been known to study calendars obsessively, but most appear to have at least some innate ability. One example is Timothy Rickard, who is blind and has the intellect of a kindergartener but is also capable of matching a day of the week to a historical date with a high degree of accuracy [source: Fox].

Another attempt to unravel the mystery considers how autistic people see the world. Because the emotional and social centers of the autistic brain don't fully develop, autistics often see their surroundings in terms of components rather than abstractions.

Here's an example. If someone throws you a baseball, your brain automatically estimates various relevant factors: ball speed, direction, distance, time until arrival. It also considers environmental factors and how to move to catch the ball. But most of this is done subconsciously and very quickly. You probably don't even realize your brain is doing it and instead only see a ball and think about catching it. In a savant's thinking, the focus is on hard data, rather than the general conclusions drawn from them. So instead of thinking about catching a ball or enjoying a musical piece, he or she might think about precise aspects of a ball's flight or determine exactly (and very quickly) which notes are being played.

With the existence of acquired savant syndrome, some scientists speculate that all humans have the potential for savant abilities but that savants are somehow able to harness them, likely owing to how their brains have been "rewired" [source: Fox]. The future of this field of study may lie in being able to create acquired savants without the accompanying brain trauma. One researcher, Allan Snyder, director of the Center of the Mind, has used transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily upset the frontotemporal lobe, the same area where some dementia patients and autistic savants have brain damage. A portion of Snyder's test subjects showed a temporary increase in artistic ability.

If you'd like to read more articles on the brain, from whether it's hardwired for religion to the difference between men's and women's brains, try the links below.

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