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Wondrous talent—like that of mathematical and artistic savants or child prodigies—is exceedingly rare. It occurs so unexpectedly one may be tempted to think of the phenomena as sui generis, so unusual that no rules or commonalities could apply across cases.

However, research is steadily disclosing the mechanisms responsible: not merely that their upbringing provides a crucible for savants and prodigies, but also that a significant influence is exerted by the lived experience and immune systems of their mothers when pregnant with them. Recent evidence suggests an expanded framework for explaining some of the most exceptional and amazing capacities human beings possess.

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Let’s take a look at three individuals:

1) Jay, a teenager, says that music streams into his head at lightning speed. Sometimes several symphonies run simultaneously. Jay’s talent began early. Although neither of his parents was musically inclined and no musical instruments were in the house, at age 2 he began to draw little cellos. At age 3, Jay asked if he could have a cello of his own. His parents took him to a music store and, to their astonishment, he picked up a miniature cello and began to play it. He had never seen a real cello before that day. Afterward, he began to draw his cellos placed on musical lines. By age 5 he had composed five symphonies. By age 15 he had written nine symphonies. His fifth symphony, at 190 pages and 1,328 bars in length, was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

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2) Alonzo Clemons, with no training in art, nonetheless sculpts intricate, true-to-life figures of animals in motion with merely a glance at an image on television or in a book. This super-charged predilection for sculpting dates back to his childhood, when Alonzo fell and hit his head. Ever since, he’s demonstrated the uncanny ability—and compulsion—to mold clay or wax into perfectly detailed animal figures within a matter of minutes. But the talent comes at a steep price: Though finally independent, for many years Alonzo couldn’t perform basic life tasks, such as feeding himself or tying his shoes. He still can’t read or write, nor does he speak very much.

3) In his early 30s, Jason Padgett was brutally attacked by muggers. They kicked him in the head, causing a concussion that hospitalized him. But the next morning, after having been sent home, Jason noticed something exceedingly odd while running water in the bathroom: “lines emanating out perpendicularly from the flow…it was so beautiful that I just stood in my slippers and stared.” When he extended his hand out in front of him, it was like “watching a slow-motion film,” as if every movement were in stop-motion animation. He soon became obsessed with every shape he saw, from rectangular windows to the curvature of a spoon. Jason also began envisioning complex images which, when he drew them, were recognized by investigators as fractals—beautiful shapes in which every element is the same as the whole. Before the mugging, Jason had no interest in drawing, no math training, nor even a college degree. He was a self-described “goof.” Now he sells his drawings for top dollar and is committed to teaching others about the beauty of math.

Jay has been a prodigy all his young life, Alonzo a savant since his childhood accident, and Jason an “acquired savant” since his beating. The terminology is only partially helpful since the conditions overlap. A prodigy is one who possesses an uncanny aptitude, often but not exclusively at a young age, with no offsetting disabilities. A savant is someone who also displays genius-level talent from an early age but, simultaneously, an autism-like deficit in communication as well as an impaired ability to care for him- or herself. (Most prodigies and savants are male, a fascinating clue in and of itself.) And an acquired savant is someone “normal” who, after an accident or trauma, displays the uncanny ability and preoccupation characteristic of both prodigies and savants.

Autism-like features (like attention to detail and preoccupation with patterns and sequences) are associated with savants as well as some prodigies. Surveys have found that anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of congenital savants have an autism spectrum disorder; in an intriguing but less expansive study, more than half of the prodigies had a close autistic relative.

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Research has found that such exceptional talent is  tied to three things: memory, recognition of patterns and sequences, and attention to detail. First, savants and prodigies are able, much more than regular folks, to draw from an expansive memory and either reproduce, manipulate, or build on the accurate images they retain. Second, savants and prodigies (as well as people with autism) traffic in complex patterns and sequences, which manifests in their art, music, mapping, mathematics, or calculations. Third, savants and prodigies have a surpassing attention to detail, even more so than people with autism. A strong drive also accompanies these phenomena, with prodigies displaying a fervor to master their skills and savants being completely consumed by their particular interest or aptitude.

The best explanation to date for savantism (whether congenital or acquired) is that damage occurs to the left side of the brain, with higher-level memory circuits likewise affected. Parts of the undamaged brain are recruited to compensate, as are lower-level memory functions. Rewiring occurs, and dormant capacity from the newly wired area is released. Darold Treffert, the world’s foremost authority on savants, terms this process “the 3 Rs”: recruitment, rewiring, release. The stunning abilities of savants are the result of fast, pre-conscious mental activity. This isn’t the executive level thinking that most of us engage in. Creativity and cognitive flexibility tends to be severely limited; in their place, automatic and rule-based processing prevails.

The reason so many savants and prodigies are male may have to do with “cerebral lateralization.” The theory suggests that any number of disorders involving disruption of the brain’s left hemisphere (including autism, dyslexia, delayed speech, stuttering, and hyperactivity) will inevitably occur much more often in boys. This is because the left hemisphere typically completes its development later than the right hemisphere, and is therefore susceptible to prenatal influences for a longer time. In the developing male fetus, for example, circulating testosterone can slow the growth of the left hemisphere. This can trigger “recruitment,” with the right hemisphere becoming bigger and more dominant.

The role of prenatal experience in the development of prodigies is a relatively new area of study, with attention beginning to be focused in the mid 1980s. One finding gleaned so far is an apparent over-representation of complicated pregnancies and premature births. For instance, the mother of Jake Barnett (a renowned math and physics prodigy) was hospitalized multiple times before giving birth. In another notable case, the mother of an eventual prodigy had an accident while pregnant, but not just any accident—she fell as she was helping her husband fight off an intruder they surprised trying to break into their house. Such instances seem to parallel the accidents and traumas that befell Alonzo Clemens and Jason Padgett, not to mention numerous other congenital and acquired savants.

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In Nature’s Gambit, his illuminating 1986 extended study of 6 child prodigies, Tufts University psychologist David Henry Feldman presented a report that touches on the conjunction between the super memory of child prodigies and difficult pregnancies. One such child (pseudonym Adam) related, on the one hand, what seemed to be memories of his birth, including reaction to the bright lights of the delivery room and the placement of a suctioning bulb into his nose. He also related apparently prenatal memories, such as the sound of his mother’s singing and “the walls closing in on me—they hurt.” What makes this latter point so remarkable is that his mother’s pregnancy was beset by numerous complications, including uterine contractions that threatened to terminate the pregnancy from the fourth month onward.

Another indicator of the role that prenatal development may play among prodigies is the increased occurrence of preeclampsia among mothers of prodigies-to-be. Preeclampsia is a condition marked by a sudden rise in blood pressure and swelling of the face, hands, and feet. It generally occurs during the late second or third trimester and may be caused by an under-developed placenta. That, in turn, may be due to a genetic defect leading the mother’s immune system to treat the placenta like an invader.

It turns out that preeclampsia, in addition to being associated with more than its share of child prodigies is also significantly linked to the development of autism. So the experiences of a mother during pregnancy, in addition to genetic factors, may bear on whether her child becomes a prodigy. Whether she battles an infection or is exposed to some sort of trauma or injury, in other words—not to mention when in the pregnancy such circumstances occur—may have a crucial effect. Just as acquired savants suddenly become exceptional because of a severe head injury, “jolts” that occur in the womb may inexorably alter the developmental trajectory.

Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is the consistent finding that prodigies share an outsize empathy: a finely tuned sensitivity to the feelings of others as well as the overwhelming desire to do good. One prodigy’s mom reflects that her son “just felt more from the time he was born. He just had so much emotion and feeling inside of him.” At age 2, another prodigy wept uncontrollably when he heard his father playing Rossini’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa. He later stated that he’d felt connected to each note of music he heard and “knew that music was an expression of his soul.”

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Joanne Ruthsatz, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who’s studied prodigies for nearly 20 years, says prodigies are “the most morally sensitive and generous individuals” she’s ever met. They often have a deeply felt sense of justice and the determination to improve the world. Along with their other exceptional capacities, this assertive benevolence may speak to latent but universal capabilities. Treffert, for one, believes the suddenness with which normal people can be transformed into acquired savants indicates that everyone may have some “Rain Man” capacity within.

Because they are so rare, these remarkable individuals merit ongoing scientific scrutiny. The fact that individuals can acquire savant-like abilities almost instantaneously through a stroke, lightning strike, or other head injury suggests that such preternatural capacities must spring from biological roots, and understanding the mechanisms involved is bound to have large implications for the rest of us.  

Michael Jawer is a freelance writer and researcher interested in the neurobiology of personality development, particularly the effect of emotion. He blogs for Psychology Today and, with Marc Micozzi, MD, PhD, has published two books: The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion (Park Street Press, 2009) and Your Emotional Type (Healing Arts Press, 2011).

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WATCH: The geneticist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee discusses chance and fate in the age of modern genetics.

The lead image is courtesy of Piyush Garyali via Flickr.

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