We all know the Thomas Edison line: genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. But there are those who don't seem to perspire at all. Their extraordinary gifts seem to come from no where. We often call those people savants. And some neuroscientists are trying to understand where their talents come from.
Sometimes their talents confound the savants themselves, as in the case of Derek Amato. An acquired savant, Amato quite suddenly developed extraordinary musical ability at age 40, after suffering a head injury. "My hands moved 100 miles an hour the first second" he tried playing piano, he remembers. "And it just didn't stop. It just came pouring out. … There comes a time when you have to say 'wow I have to really get some control of this.'"
More typically, savants display an astonishing talent alongside a developmental disability, such as an autistic-spectrum disorder. "What we've found so far is that there is damage to one part of the brain (often the left hemisphere) with a compensation from some other part of the brain (usually the right hemisphere) and there is the release of dormant potential within that area," explains psychiatrist Darold Treffert. "I call it the three Rs: recruitment, rewiring, and release."
If extraordinary talent can be shut up in one part of our brains, untapped, is there a way to turn untalented people into savants – without a brain injury? A shortcut to creative ability? Kerrie Hillman investigates.
Slideshow: Art by Joel Gilb, Age 12