Brain Damage…with Benefits
After falling victim to a violent mugging outside a Tacoma karaoke bar one evening in 2002, Jason Padgett emerged a changed man. The attack left him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI)…but also with synesthesia as well as new, savant-level artistic and mathematical abilities. Padgett was suddenly a medical marvel.
Prior to the incident, Jason had never made it past pre-algebra math curriculum. After the mugging, he found himself seeing geometric forms everywhere, able to draw their patterns and use them to solve complex mathematical problems he had never so much as imagined before the attack.
Who needs a properly-functioning brain, anyway?
In Overdose Edition #6, Jesse speaks with Dr. Berit Brogaard, a professor at the University of Miami and the director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research. Dr. Brogaard (who is herself a synesthete) is a leading authority on “Acquired Savant Syndrome,” the classification for people who, like Jason Padgett, seem to have benefitted from brain trauma.
Savant Syndrome, which is exceptionally rare even in its “normal” form, is a condition in which an individual possesses a skill so extraordinary that he or she is able to perform seemingly impossible mathematical, linguistic, or artistic tasks. The skills seen in savants tend to be right-brain or bilateral skills. Intriguingly, half of savant cases are believed to occur in people with autism.
Acquired Savant Syndrome refers to cases in which savant-level skills emerge after a brain injury or disease in previously healthy individuals where no such prodigious skills were evident beforehand. In recent years, Dr. Brogaard and her colleagues have been working to identify and conduct research on individuals in whom Acquired Savant Syndrome can be confirmed.
The School of Hard Knocks
In our interview, Dr. Brogaard discusses the many difficulties associated with research into Acquired Savant Syndrome. Most problems derive from the simple fact that people dealing with a brain injury are preoccupied with stopping the bleeding — sometimes literally — rather than getting tested for newfound cognitive abilities. Doctors don’t look for Acquired Savant Syndrome, and many aren’t even aware the condition exists. Their understandable concern is dealing with the recent trauma to the brain, which even if not life-threatening, is always at minimum quality-of-life-threatening.
Another research challenge is the lack of study subjects, given ethical impossibility of inducing this type of serendipitous response in healthy individuals. Despite the difficulties, Dr. Brogaard poses ways in which researchers might be able to ethically conduct further studies in the future.
The great promise offered by Acquired Savant Syndrome is in the questions it raises about whether savant-level capacities are lying dormant in all of us, or if only certain people have these nascent capacities. As with Phineas Gage and the memory patient H.M., it is often those brains that have experienced the greatest misfortunes that offer the clearest insight into how a properly-working brain actually works.