For most people who develop medical conditions due to unforeseen diseases or accidents, life tends to get more difficult. It doesn’t matter how severe the condition is, they have to give up on a part of their former lives to accommodate it.
In some cases, though, the exact opposite happens. Throughout history, a few people have acquired extraordinary skills because of their medical conditions, and science still doesn’t quite understand how it works. Even if it’s a bad idea to go out and try to replicate these cases to improve your lives—as it only happens in rare instances—they provide us with valuable insight into how the human brain really works.
Born in 1934, Franco Magnani grew up in a small village in the Tuscany region of Italy called Pontito. Like many places in Europe at that time, it was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, and it still hasn’t recovered. After working there as a woodworker, Magnani eventually moved to San Francisco in his thirties.
Soon after his relocation, he was stricken by a mysterious illness that gave him powerful, delirious hallucinations about his hometown. When he recovered, he found that he had developed an exceptional ability to draw anything from memory, especially scenes from his early life in Pontito.
He eventually got so good at it that he’s now known as the “memory artist,” and we’re not using the word “memory” as an exaggeration. Magnani produced his best paintings without ever going back to the village after he moved to San Francisco, and they still look quite realistic.
Learning a musical instrument is no easy feat as anyone who has tried it just to look cool would tell you. Depending on the instrument, it may take months—even years—to achieve proficiency at it and even more time to master it. For Derek Amato from Denver, though, all it took was a bad fall.
It was around 12 years ago that he accidentally fell headfirst into the shallow end of a swimming pool, directly injuring his head. For most of us, that would mean a few days off from work at best and a debilitating lifelong medical condition at worst. Derek Amato, however, came out of it with a newfound ability to play the piano.
Apparently, the injury made him see black and white squares in his head, which he is somehow able to translate into piano notes. That’s the only type of notes he can understand as he is unable to read traditional notations like other musicians.
Ken Walters was a successful, happily settled engineer in 1986 when his life took a turn for the worst. While he was working on a farm, a forklift truck driven by a 12-year-old accidentally pinned him to a wall. It caused massive spinal and internal damage and had him confined to a wheelchair for 19 years. However, this is not the injury we’re talking about.
As if things weren’t bad enough, he suffered a stroke in 2005 and was taken to the hospital. At first, he couldn’t even speak properly and had to communicate with the hospital staff through notes. While writing one of those notes, he realized that he could now doodle, which was particularly surprising to him as he had never been good at any type of art before the stroke.
The stroke fundamentally changed something in his brain, and he soon started making art for a living. In addition to Walters being contacted by companies like IBM, EA, and Java for his artwork, his pictures have been featured in magazines and art galleries around the world.
Some medical conditions are so rare that they only affect one person in the entire world—as far as we know. Apparently, Leigh Erceg is the only one in the world ever diagnosed with acquired savant syndrome and synesthesia (both are rare conditions on their own) following a brain injury.
In 2009, she fell down a ravine while working on her family farm and badly injured her spinal cord and brain. Due to the severity of the accident, she has no memory of anything before the injury and even has trouble remembering world events like the fall of the Berlin Wall. The injury also squashed her ability to feel emotions, which the doctors creatively called the “flat affect.”
On the other hand, she gained an extraordinary flair for art and physics. Her home is now filled with art done with Sharpies as well as boards full of complex mathematical formulas that most of us would have trouble reading, let alone understanding.
Perhaps the most famous person on this list, Eadweard Muybridge has multiple accomplishments that you may have heard of. Apart from pioneering some of the earliest techniques in photography, he was also the first person to make a motion picture.
What may not be common knowledge, however, is how he got those talents. According to later research by a psychologist at UC-Berkeley, it was because of an injury from a serious stagecoach accident in 1860. Muybridge went into a coma for a few days. Then he suffered from intense visions and loss of hearing, taste, and smell for three months. Following his recovery, he moved to England and started his long and illustrious career as a photographer.
Muybridge may be one of the earliest-known examples of someone with acquired savant syndrome—a condition in which the patient acquires extraordinary abilities following a disease or brain injury.
Despite high school’s best efforts, most people are bad at mathematics. There’s just something about numbers and calculations that doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and those who are good at it usually end up having hugely successful careers in specialized fields. For Jim Carollo, though, it was only a matter of going through a traumatic brain injury.
At 14 years old, he was involved in a severe auto accident and even spent some days in a coma. The injury was so serious that the doctors thought he wouldn’t make it. Not only did he survive and fully recover within a few months but he also developed a skill for math.
He scored a perfect 100 on his next geometry test without studying, which was surprising because he had never been particularly good at math before the accident. He became especially proficient at remembering numbers and can now recite anything from phone numbers, credit card numbers, old locker combinations, and the first 200 digits of pi just from memory.
Not everyone is born with a talent for music. However, Lachlan Connors was so bad at it that he couldn’t even remember nursery rhymes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” He actually wanted to make a career in lacrosse, which may be because he was a kid at the time and didn’t know that there is no real career in lacrosse.
It all changed after he suffered a few injuries to his head while playing. What were just concussions and presumably swollen bumps the first few times soon turned into serious epileptic seizures and hallucinations. Due to the severity of his condition, his doctor advised him against playing anymore.
The seizures and hallucinations eventually subsided, though they were puzzlingly replaced by something he never had before—the ability to play musical instruments. We aren’t just talking about the guitar, either. He could now effortlessly play a wide range of instruments like piano, ukulele, mandolin, harmonica, and bagpipes.
Drawing is something we all love to do, even though most of us aren’t naturally gifted at it. It’s one thing to make a variety of smiley faces when you can’t concentrate in class, but it’s a wholly different thing to be good enough at it to convince someone to pay you for it.
It’s a difference that Pip Taylor—a middle-aged woman from Liverpool, England—knew only too well. She grew up with a passion for drawing but was so bad at it that even her teacher advised her against taking it up as a career.
Then she fell down a flight of stairs and cracked her head in 2012. She was amazed to discover that she could now draw realistic copies of almost anything. The doctors were stumped and couldn’t really explain it. However, they admitted that brain injuries can sometimes rewire the brain into developing extraordinary skills.
Due to advancements in medicine in the past few decades, we take some diseases for granted. What may be curable with just a doctor’s visit and a few medicines today used to be a definite death sentence at one point. Typhoid was one such disease and wreaked havoc on anyone who was unlucky enough to contract it before we could find a cure for it.
Sabine—a six-year-old in 1910—was left blind and mute due to the disease. Although she regained some of her speech abilities in the following months, her brain stopped developing like a normal child. At the time, some presumably insensitive doctors even called her an “imbecile.”
All those problems aside, though, the disease also left her with a sort of superpower—the ability to do calculations with ridiculously large numbers like it was nothing. She became especially good at squaring any number they threw at her in a matter of seconds.
One of the biggest misconceptions about head injuries is that they’re supposed to hurt a lot and, in cases of severe damage, you should black out. Even if those things do happen quite often, the reality is that serious injuries affect everyone in a different way.
In 2011, Ric Owens was a professional chef with a successful career. When his car was hit by a big rig on the highway, he didn’t think much of it as he didn’t have any immediate symptoms. Within a week, though, he started getting migraines and his speech began to slur. He was soon diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome and found that he was no longer interested in making food. Instead, he was now into abstract geometric art.
Although neither he nor the doctors could explain how it happened, he could suddenly make art with anything he found around the house. He has about 100 pieces lying around the house now, made with everything from ceiling tiles, pallets, lamps, and glass.
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