Recently, however, Treffert has come across people who, after a sort of "a-ha!" moment and without any associated injury, become savants practically overnight.
"In the past several years, I have learned about 14 new cases in which there was an unexpected epiphany in which a new art, music or math skill suddenly presented itself, along with all of the 'rules' of those skills," Treffert says. "All this emerged in areas previously of no interest and no ability."
Treffert wrote about a few of his patients in a recent blog for Scientific American, including one who suddenly noticed texture and color in the world around her in a way she never had before. She bought a cheap set of pastels and started copying a picture of a gorilla on the cover of a "National Geographic Magazine" in her home, reproducing the photograph with surprising skill. She now finds it difficult to pull herself away from her drawings, and has to lock her art supplies out of reach in order to accomplish everyday tasks.
This type of compulsion is mirrored in another of Treffert's patients — a real estate agent who one day started drawing triangles, and now draws elaborate mandalas that she works on eight hours a day after a full day of work. Another of Treffert's patients, a man with no previous musical training, reported sitting down at a piano in a mall one day and suddenly understanding music theory in a profound way. He immediately began to play like a classically trained pianist, and is now a professional musician.
"We are examining all variables attached to this sudden phenomenon," Treffert says. "In contrast to savant syndrome in general, it seems to occur more in females than males, often in midlife, and the acquired skills most often include music and art. To our knowledge, there is no precipitating injury or disease — what triggers it remains a mystery."
Treffert is intrigued by these cases because he says they suggest there is a vast potential in every mind.
"We each have a little "Rain Man" in us," he says. "The challenge is to tap these very skills non-intrusively without head injury or disease. We are presently exploring this area electronically, pharmacologically, by altered consciousness such as meditation. About the time I think I have heard it all comes a new case with astonishing abilities, whether congenital, acquired or sudden. These alert me more and more to the mind-blowing capacity, intricacy and still mystery of the brain — that marvelous organ we so take for granted and really understand so little."