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Eight people who got head injuries and became geniuses

Health & Science


Most of us have wished we might suddenly wake up richer, taller, thinner or better-looking at some point. But Jason Padgett really did wake up a changed man.

Previously a school drop-out who worked in his dad’s furniture shop and was the life and soul of the party, at the age of 31 he was left a maths and physics genius overnight after being hit on the head during a mugging.

Diagnosed with acquired savant syndrome, in which brain injuries turn previously normal people into experts in maths, art or music, Jason, 43, is one of few people in the world who can draw fractals by hand. The images are repeated geometric patterns and can take him weeks – if not months to finish.

He’s in good company. While a head injury is undoubtedly a traumatic experience, for some it provided an unexpected epiphany, too.

Calendrical calculations

Hit on the side of the head with a baseball aged 10, Orlando Serrell was knocked out before coming round and finishing the game.

“I didn’t tell my parents,” he said, “therefore, I had no medical treatment for the accident.”

He suffered headaches for a year but when the pain finally lifted after a year Orlando, now 44, from Virginia, realised he could recall the day of the week of any given date. He has never made a mistake.

He can perform incredible calendrical calculations – from knowing how many days there are between two given dates or how many times March 12 has ever fallen on a Thursday.

For instance ask him about February 11, 1983 and he says: “Friday. It was raining that day. I had a pizza from Domino’s - pepperoni sausage.”

Painting and poetry

Former prison inmate Tommy McHugh was lucky to survive two subarachnoid brain haemorrhages in 2001 when he was 51.

He said: “I woke up in hospital and looked out of the window to see the tree was sprouting numbers. 3, 6, 9. Then I started talking in rhyme…”

Damage to his frontal and temporal lobes in his brain left Tommy, who died of cancer in 2012 aged 63, with an incredible urge to paint and speak in rhyme. He became so prolific the walls of his home in Birkenhead, Merseyside, were covered in paintings after canvas became too costly.

“I could taste the femininity inside of myself,” he said. “My head was full of rhymes and images and pictures.”

Harvard neurologist Dr Alice Flaherty, who studied Mr McHugh, said the brain haemorrhage was “a crack that let the light in”.

Classical musical genius

Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon, was struck by lightning in a park in 1994.

A nearby nurse saved his life with CPR and Dr Cicoria’s health returned to normal.

But soon afterwards he felt an inexplicable compulsion to listen to classical piano music and then play it - even though he never had any desire to play a musical instrument before.

He bought some sheet music and taught himself the piano, before starting to compose his own complicated pieces.

Dr Cicoria, 62, of New York, said: “It took me a couple of weeks to get over what had happened. And then the music started. The first thing that came was just the desire to hear piano music. I started to listen and I didn’t question it all that much. It was shortly after that that I thought, ‘I want to be able to play this music’.”


As a toddler, Alonzo Clemons suffered a traumatic head injury after falling onto the bathroom floor.

Left with an IQ of just 40 and unable to read or write, he grew up in a home for people with learning difficulties.

But almost straight away, he showed an incredible ability to sculpt. He made intricate models of animals using whatever materials he had, even after seeing the animals for just a few moments.

“He started using just about anything he could to sculpt like soap,” said his mum Evelyn Clemmons, “He had a need to do that.

“At first I didn’t quite understand it, I wanted him to try other things. But he just kept on.”

Alonzo, 56, of Boulder, Colorado, was diagnosed with acquired savant syndrome and has produced works which have sold for as much as £26,000.


When Ben McMahon was left in a coma after a car crash, his parents feared he might never wake up.

But a week later the Australian student did wake – speaking Mandarin.

“Most of it’s hazy, but when I woke up seeing a Chinese nurse, I thought I was in China,” said Ben, 22, who had studied the basic language at school and failed it.

“It was like a dream. I just started speaking Chinese — they were the first words that left my mouth.”

Ben eventually recalled English but his talent never left and he now uses it to earn a living as a Chinese-speaking tour guide in Australia and on television Au My Gau – Oh My God – a Chinese-language television helping Chinese expats settle in Australia.

Musical prodigy

Lachlan Connors, from Denver, Colorado, was so tone-deaf he couldn’t even play nursery rhymes on the piano, much to his mother’s frustration.

The sports-mad teen was left with two serious concussions in separate accidents during lacrosse games, he suffered epileptic seizures and hallucinations and had to quit contact sports.

But the 17-year-old’s injury had a positive side effect – he acquired the skill to learn to play musical instruments effortlessly. Experts believe his epileptic seizures may have been the same as composer Frederic Chopin

From having “no talent” as a boy he now plays 13 instruments including the piano, guitar, mandolin, ukelele, and harmonica.

“I honestly think something got rewired and just changed,” he said. “Thank God it did. Music is the thing that gets me up in the morning.

Maths genius

Daniel Tammett became obsessed with numbers after he suffered an epileptic seizure at three.

Throughout school he won awards for his studies but he was not picked out as extraordinary. It wasn’t until he was 25 that he was diagnosed with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome that allows him to work out calculations to an incredible degree of accuracy.

He recited pi from memory to 22,514 decimal places in 5 hours 9 minutes. He also speaks 10 languages, including Icelandic which he learnt in a week after a challenge for a television programme.

Unusually for an autistic savant Daniel, 35, can articulate the process he goes through when working out complex calculations.

He said: “When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That’s the answer. It’s mental imagery. It’s like maths without having to think.”

Musical ability

When Derek Amato dived into a friend’s pool in October 2006, he knew he had hurt himself as soon as his head hit the concrete floor.

He said: “I remember the panic set in that I knew I hurt myself. I knew it was something bad.”

Derek was diagnosed with a serious concussion, hearing loss and headaches. It seemed like yet another setback after he had been made homeless after a failed business deal in 2002.

But weeks later, he saw a piano at his friend’s house and was “drawn” to play it. He explained he instinctively knew how to play after seeing black and white squares moving from left to right that prompt his fingers to move.

Amato, who can play eight instruments and has released two albums, said: “When those black and white squares are going, that’s what my hands do. I’m convinced it’s all for a reason and it’s my job to do it right.”


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