When a person sustains a brain injury and has to endure the long and difficult road to recovery, there seems no more unlikely time for an unexpected and prodigious talent to emerge.

Yet there are examples from around the world of people who develop such new-found capabilities after suffering a brain injury, in areas they had little or no interest or ability in beforehand.  

While very rare, with some experts claiming there are only around 90 known cases globally, the onset of ‘acquired savant syndrome’ has seen brain injury survivors develop amazing levels of skill in areas like art, music, mathematical challenges and poetry writing.

One well-documented case is that of Jason Padgett, a 31-year-old man who suffered a brain injury in an attack in Washington DC in 2002. During his recovery, he realised he had developed remarkable mathematical abilities, alongside the ability to draw complex geometric figures and grids. He was also able to see patterns in everything he looked at.

Having previously dropped out of university, as a result of his newly-acquired talent, he was able to return to academia to study number theory.

Another example is that of Scott Mele, who was left with a traumatic brain injury after a car collision. One morning, he woke with an overwhelming urge to paint. Despite having never picked up a paint brush previously, Scott was suddenly able to produce impressive creations, remembering he ‘ended up painting every night for nine months straight’.

Furthermore, there are the cases of Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon from New York, who discovered a talent for playing the piano after being struck by lightning, and Tommy McHugh, who became an accomplished poet after a stroke.

The acquisition of such impressive skills, particularly after such a traumatic episode, is believed to arise following damage to the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL) and acquired savant syndrome.

Psychiatrist Darold Treffert, who has researched acquired savant syndrome for decades, explains: “Following an injury to the brain, there’s recruitment of undamaged cortex from elsewhere in the brain, then there’s rewiring to that undamaged area, and a release of dormant potential. It’s a compensatory mechanism involving areas that may have been dormant, or areas that are ‘stolen’ and their function changed.”

Professor Dave Hiles, of De Montfort University, is a specialist in studying savant syndrome, and while the link between autism or disability and savant skills, or “islands of brilliance”, is more common, acquired savant syndrome presents the same extraordinary abilities but in sudden and highly rare instances.

“There are two necessary components of the savant syndrome – the first is a remarkable ability to memorise, to record detail, or repeat an operation endlessly and efficiently, and the second is a means of giving expression to this ability,” he explains.

“The importance of the second should not be underestimated. Not only are savants noticed by this expression of their special abilities, but also savants like doing something, and doing it again, again and again.

“No one has any idea how many savants go unnoticed. In the case of prodigious savants it is possible that early recognition and careful encouragement are important contributory factors to how the talent develops. It has been proposed that helping the savant to achieve a higher level of general functioning may result in a loss of the special savant skills. However, there is little evidence for this, and it may well be that ‘training the talent’ could be a valuable approach towards improving socialisation, communication and self-esteem.”

With the discovery of such unexpected and outstanding talents following a traumatic injury, and no clear explanation as to why that should happen, many have speculated that acquired savant syndrome is in fact the release of talents which have lain dormant.

Dr Treffert shares the view that we all have a ‘hidden savant’ to some degree.

“I think there’s hidden potential within us all, in varying degrees and types. The most common ability to emerge is art, followed by music, but I’ve had cases where brain damage makes people suddenly interested in dance, or in Pinball Wizard,” he says.

“Talent is distributed in all of us in different ways, and while some of us are just good, others of us are exceptional.”