5 People Who Concussed Their Way to Greatness
Getting absolutely walloped upside the head is an experience that most people spend their lives trying to avoid, or at the very least minimize. This is because a head injury is a highly negative experience. Even if you love the experience of being dizzy or unconscious, there are drugs for that which don’t include putting your skull’s structural integrity in jeopardy. In general, there’s not much upside generated from the introduction of a blunt object to the scalp at any kind of speed.
In very, very rare cases, though, a cranial impact can somehow unlock incredible talent. Across the world, there are several examples of what doctors call “acquired savants,” people who, despite showing no particular extreme talent before a traumatic head injury, apparently have high-level gifts knocked into them. Doctors still aren’t sure how just the right impact can perfect some neural pathways like smacking an old jukebox, but it’s happened frequently enough to be considered a genuine phenomenon.
Here are five examples of people who rode head trauma to great talent…
For most of the early portion of his life, Padgett was not somebody you were going to consult when you needed math tips. He wasn’t a particularly studious fellow, preferring parties to pi calculations, and that continued until he was 31 years old. At the end of another night at a karaoke bar, he was jumped by two men for his jacket, which left him with a serious concussion (and one less jacket).
It also turned out to give him an incredible ability to see patterns in numbers, in part due to the development of synesthesia, which connected numbers with colors in his head. He was consumed with a need to make complex mathematical drawings, ones that, when mathematicians got a look at them, they realized were accurate hand-drawn depictions of fractals. Without any math training past high school pre-algebra, he didn’t possess the advanced math language to explain what he was seeing, but it all suddenly made sense. He’s since begun to study mathematics, in an effort to bring his vocabulary up to snuff with his new talent.
Amato was a normal 39-year-old at a pool party, with no musical talent outside of the same amount of guitar that every 39-year-old seems to know. But one single dive at an inadvisable depth was about to change that forever. Amato that day made the decision to dive into the shallow end of the pool, an act that basically serves as shorthand for stupidity. At first, it certainly seemed as advertised, with him smashing his head on the pool’s bottom, resulting in a serious concussion and a partial loss of hearing.
His recovery started pretty normal and pretty miserable, until one day, he was hanging out at a musician friend’s house, and felt a brand-new pull toward the piano. When he slid onto the bench, he found that he somehow was now a natural piano player, with entire complicated scores pouring out of his head and onto the keys (thankfully not literally). Since then he’s been consumed with playing the piano, explaining that the music is always playing in his head and he’s just letting it out, and has played alongside classically trained concert pianists.
Serrell was 10 years old, playing baseball, when the ball took the exact dreaded trajectory that none of us want to see and the more anxious among us constantly imagine: directly off a bat, into his head. After his coach presumably told him to rub some dirt on it, Serrell started to realize that something in his brain had changed forever, though unfortunately not in as marketable a way as the savants above.
The specific switch that line drive seemed to have flipped was a form of photographic memory. From the day of his accident, Serrell can remember with complete accuracy the day of the week and the weather of any date he’s asked. It’s incredible, and he’s been studied by scientists because of it, even though it might not offer him too much day-to-day advantage, outside of being able to recall a stellar alibi if he ever needs one.
Clemons’ accident at the age of four carried much more serious consequences than others on this list. His head injury caused him to have serious mental problems, leaving him mentally disabled with an IQ of approximately 40. In one particular area, though, it somehow gave him a talent most people, even in his chosen field, can’t begin to match.
After the accident, Clemons felt a desire to sculpt, at first using whatever materials he had available to him, including butter, but eventually moving on to the much more accepted and less messy medium of clay. What he sculpts are animals, and with incredible speed and accuracy, completely from memory, and without tools. He seems to be able to create perfect mental models of animals he’s seen, and then to sculpt them accurately in as little as 15 minutes. Though there’s a lot to regret, he considers his artistic ability a gift from god, and his work’s been displayed in museums and public forums. You can see (and buy) his sculptures at his website.
The Entire Football Hall of Fame
How could we do an article about concussions and greatness without bringing in America’s premier bell-ringers, the National Football League? The people with a bust in Canton are some of the greatest athletes and most well-known public figures in modern U.S. history. Statistically, they also all got their melons truly mashed on a regular basis, even more the ones who played when helmets were little more than a piece of leather or an upside down salad bowl.