Does Everyone Have the Ability to Become a Genius?

artist Stephen Wiltshire
Artist Stephen Wiltshire, who is considered an autistic savant, attends the unveiling of his commissioned cityscape of the Empire State Building on Oct. 16, 2017, in New York City. John Lamparski/Getty Images

Good news for those of you who have ever wanted to acquire a virtuosic skill without putting in the work to develop it. It is possible (though not probable) that one day you will find yourself inexplicably drawn to a piano, and as you run your hands over the keys, you'll realize you're the master of loads of music theory you never actually learned.

Or you might sit down one day with a pencil and draw a photorealistic picture of your dog, though you once couldn't draw a dog if your life depended on it. Just don't get your hopes up. Researchers are learning that every so often it does happen, and it's called sudden savant syndrome.


Autistic Savants

First, let's back up a bit. Savant syndrome is a condition that shows up in about 10 percent of people that fall on the autism spectrum. Dustin Hoffman won best actor at the 1989 Oscars for his portrayal of an autistic savant in the film "Rain Man." Congenital savants — those whose abilities show up in early childhood — often have some deep, impressive, but ultimately very narrow cognitive talents that are almost always associated with autism.

Congenital savants might be profoundly disabled in one aspect of their cognitive functioning, but they often have extraordinary abilities in another. Savantism sometimes shows up in the form of an ability to perform complex mental math or astounding feats of memorization. For example, some savants can almost instantaneously calculate that Feb. 27, 1913, fell on a Thursday, and others might be able to memorize every license plate number they encounter on a car trip between San Diego and Seattle.


Other savants might have exceptional skills in music or art. For example, Nadia Chomyn, a child from the U.K. who was profoundly autistic (she died in 2015 at the age of 48), started producing photographically realistic drawings of horses and people riding them when she was just 3. Without ever being taught, she instinctively knew everything about drawing: linear perspective, foreshortening and proportion, despite having limited to no social or communicative skills. Strangely, Chomyn lost her ability to draw when her communication improved at age 9.

Acquired Savants

Although congenital savants like Chomyn have been recognized throughout history — until the 1970s, they were called "idiot savants" — other types have been identified in the past couple of decades. People who've suffered from head injuries, strokes or other central nervous system (CNS) damage can occasionally develop abilities consistent with those seen in autistic savants.

Dr. Darold Treffert, the founder of The Treffert Center in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and author of "Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant," has been studying savant syndrome for 57 years. He even worked as a consultant on the movie "Rain Man."


Until about 15 years ago, Treffert worked under the assumption, as everyone in his field did, that savantism always was a symptom that showed up in conjunction with autism. But patients with brain injury or disease began appearing in his office with special abilities much like those of his patients with autism. This acquired savant phenomenon seems to be much less common — only one in 2,000 people with brain injuries develop these types of special abilities or interests, whereas one in 20 autistic patients exhibit it.

However, since the scope of injuries that could be associated with savantism is pretty huge, acquired savantism accounts for about half the known cases, while autism accounts for the other half.


Sudden Savants

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."