When Brain Injury Leads to Brilliance


2014-0714 bright_idea_186668The article featured in this post was written by Alison Caporimo for Reader’s Digest. I received permission from Reader’s Digest to include Caporimo’s article in this post. The picture is a free download from All Free Download. I chose to feature the article because it identifies several survivors who overcame significant adversity by adapting to their “new” normal rather than focusing on what they can no longer do. Whether or not we have acquired savant skills, we can learn about ourselves from the stories mentioned in Caporimo’s article.

Article by Alison Caporimo | Reader’s Digest

Meet five people—savants, some call them—whose lives changed irrevocably after brain damage.

 The Mistaken Mathematician

When muggers brutally attacked college dropout and furniture-store employee Jason Padgett, 43, in Tacoma, Washington, on December 13, 2002, they gave him a concussion—and a higher IQ. After the attack, Padgett began to see mathematical formulas and patterns in his surroundings (similar to Nobel Prize–winning mathematician John Nash). Medical tests revealed that his damaged brain is overcompensating in certain areas that most people do not have access to. Now Padgett turns the designs he sees into intricate, hand-drawn diagrams called fractals and sells them online via Fine Art America.

The Instant Beethoven

Derek Amato hit his head in a swimming pool in the autumn of 2006 when he was 39 years old, losing 35 percent of his hearing in one ear and much of his memory. But he gained a miraculous skill: Four days after his accident, Amato sat in a friend’s makeshift music studio and was drawn to an electric keyboard. He had never had the slightest interest in the instrument and couldn’t read sheet music, but that didn’t stop him from playing a spontaneous concerto … for six hours. After consulting a physician, Amato learned that he’d developed acquired savant syndrome, in which brain damage causes dormant skills to emerge.

The Overnight European

Try to follow along: Karen Butler, 60, is from Oregon, not England, but she got her accent from her dental surgeon. In 2009, Butler awoke from dental implant surgery with an accent that’s a bit British with a Transylvanian twang, and it stuck. This phenomenon, known as foreign accent syndrome (a condition so rare that only about 60 cases have been documented worldwide), is thought to stem from a minor injury to the part of the brain responsible for language pattern and tone.

The Human Calendar

At the age of ten, Virginia native Orlando Serrell was accidentally hit in the head with a baseball and developed a headache. After the ache cleared up a few days later, Serrell could spit out the day of the week for any date since August 17, 1979, the day he was struck. Serrell, now 45, has what’s called hyperthymestic syndrome, the ability to recall a large catalog of autobiographical events.

The Accidental Artist

At the age of 36, Massachusetts chiropractor Jon Sarkin suffered a stroke and became obsessed with drawing. He had never shown any talent for art yet became so fixated on it that he would rush off in the middle of family dinners to sketch symbols, draw objects, and paint for hours, as ideas continuously came to him. He tried to return to his chiropractic practice, but he couldn’t stop doodling. His distraction has paid off: The New Yorker, GQ, and other publications have featured his dramatic and ghostly drawings, his paintings have sold for up to $10,000 each, and Tom Cruise’s production company bought the rights to his life story.

Sources: Popular Science, the Daily Mail, cracked.com, ABC News

Click here to read more and watch the videos.


Reprinted with permission from Reader’s Digest.Copyright (c) 2014 by The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.

Thanks to Alison Caporimo for writing the article; Reader’s Digest for publishing the article; All Free Download for providing a source for free picture downloads;  and all the other people who, directly or indirectly, made it possible for me to include the picture and text I used in this post.


  1. Against the best conventional wisdom, it is essential to focus on what you cannot do if you are a brain injury survivor. It is what allows the survivor to live in the present, rather than the possible future of the waiting for the cog skills to return. Further, “if I just keep working hard, I’ll keep making progress, and eventually I’ll reach my pre-injury performance,” is a disappointment waiting to happen, driving confidence even lower. It is not until the survivor comes to terms with their limitations, and that those limitations might not improve, that the false veil is removed for a moment of clarity that allows them to plant a firm foundation in the journey toward a goal.

    1. Marlon, you are right. It does not make sense to think about a past you cannot change when there is so much about the future that you can change.

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