Is there a secret to genius? Is it simply a function of having the right brain patterns, or is there a deeper mechanism at work?
A blow to the head can sometimes unveil hidden artistic or intellectual gifts. Might we all have hidden capacities that could be unleashed without brain injury?
This question has been puzzled scientists and philosophers alike since the dawn of history. However, there are few people who demonstrate superhuman mastery in certain subjects, and believe it or not but they gained their extraordinary abilities from brain damage.
1 – Tommy McHugh (1949 – 2012)
This Liverpudlian builder had never picked up an artist’s brush but, ever since a near-fatal brain injury Tommy has been consumed by a powerful compulsion to paint.
He would say of the bizarre incident:
I was sitting on the toilet. I suddenly felt an explosion in the left side of my head and ended up on the floor. I think the only thing that kept me conscious was that I didn’t want to be found with my pants down. Then the other side of my head went bang! I woke up in hospital and looked out of the window to see the tree was sprouting numbers. 3, 6, 9. Then I started talking in rhyme…
Not long after this, McHugh, who had never had the slightest interest or ability in art or poetry, began to constantly and obsessively paint and write.
He turned up prodigious amounts of work, with his mind working faster than it ever had before, and with talent and sheer creativity he had never displayed in the past. Those mysterious numbers also continued to pop up everywhere he looked, and he has said of this newfound creative outpouring and ability:
My brain is showing me endless, endless corridors. I’ll paint three or six or nine pictures at a time. I see those numbers in my head all the time. Canvases became too costly, so I started painting the ceilings and the wallpaper and the floor. I can’t stop painting and sculpting. Give me a mountain and I’ll turn it into a profile. If you give me a bare tree I’ll change it, so when spring come all the leaves will create the face, the mouth, the lips. Without hurting the tree.
2 – Orlando Serrell (born 1968)
In 1979, then ten-year-old Orlando was playing baseball when the ball struck him hard on the left side of his head. He fell to the ground but eventually got up to continue playing.
For a while, Orlando had headaches. When they went away, he realized he had new abilities: he could perform complex calendar calculations and remember the weather every day from the day of the accident.Orlando became a media sensation at the time, and in later years he has gone on to contribute to medical studies that hope to determine just what it was that triggered these newfound powers.
3 – Jason Padgett (born 1970)
In 2002, two men savagely attacked Jason Padgett outside a karaoke bar, leaving him with a severe concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder. But the incident also turned Padgett into a mathematical genius who sees the world through the lens of geometry.This is all especially impressive as Padgett, who was never any good at math and had never really like studying at all, was creating fractals that were very precise, meaning that his brain was intuitively working out incredibly sophisticated mathematical formulas and translating those to the images he saw everywhere he went.
Padget would later go on to seriously study mathematics and number theory, which he of course excels at, and he has written a book of his strange experiences called Struck by Genius (2014).
4 – Jim Carollo
When Jim Carollo was 14-years-old, a car accident destroyed his life. His mother was killed in the crash, and Jim lapsed into a coma. Due to the extensive brain injuries he’d suffered, the doctors didn’t think he’d live more than a few weeks.
But against all odds, he did survive. After six weeks, he woke up from the coma and began the long, slow process of physical rehabilitation. Soon, he was able to return to school, and that’s when he realized that he would never be a normal teenager again.
Before the accident, Carollo had had no interest in math; afterward, it came as easily as breathing. Without studying, he aced his high school geometry Mastery test. Then he skipped up to calculus, passing every exam with ease. Memorizing any number was as simple as looking at it. He memorized 200 digits of pi in a little over a day. Beneath every day-to-day activity, numbers were scrolling through Carollo’s head, endless sequences of digits.
5 – Derek Amato (born 1970)
In 2006, a nightmare became real. Derek Amato, a resident of Denver, Colorado, dove into a pool and struck his head on the shallow bottom. He blacked out and woke up in the hospital, disoriented and terrified. It’s the kind of accident every parent fears, an accident that leaves most paralyzed.
And Derek wasn’t immune to the dangers. His head injury left him with massive hearing loss, chronic headaches, and memory problems that still persist to this day. Yet Derek considers the accident the best thing that’s ever happened to him, because it also turned him into a musical prodigy.
In the days after the accident, Derek began to see moving black and white shapes, a “continuous stream of musical notation” flowing behind his closed eyelids. Even though Derek had never been musically inclined, he suddenly had the ability to sit down at a piano and play intricate pieces that take most people years to perfect. Although he doesn’t understand his ability, he says that he’s grateful for it every day.
6 – Alonzo Clemons (born 1958)
Alonzo Clemons suffered a brain injury in his infancy that impacted his ability to learn and communicate, forcing him to overcome a multitude of hardships in the aftermath. Yet this hasn’t hindered his ability to sculpt and see the world in a way we can all be inspired from.
Clemens can simply glance at an animal such as a horse for just a couple of seconds and then go and sculpt an incredibly detailed recreation of it which is accurate down to the last minuscule detail. This sort of thing would take a normal artist hours and hours and constant looking at the subject, yet Clemens can churn these out in under 30 minutes with merely a quick glimpse. Clemens has gone on to become a minor celebrity, and his work has been shown and marveled at all over the world.
7 – Franco Magnani (born 1934)
In the 1960s, an Italian immigrant living in San Francisco began suffering from a strange and sudden illness. Franco Magnani was wracked by fevers that forced him into bed and brought on a state of delirium. While he suffered, he dreamed. He dreamed of his childhood home in Pontito, Italy, which he’d left almost a decade earlier. When he woke up from these episodes, he would paint his dreams, all of them scenes from his childhood.
As it turned out, Magnani was painting perfect, photorealistic snapshots of the village where he grew up, memories which his brain had stored away for years. Somehow, brain damage from his feverish fits–which are now believed to have been a form of epilepsy–had activated something in his brain that allowed him to recall every single detail from these childhood moments.
More than 20 years after Magnani’s illness, a photographer traveled to Pontito and was able to photograph the exact scenes which appeared in Magnani’s paintings.