The Sudden Savant Syndrome is a rare phenomenon in which an otherwise normal person gets some kind of brain injury and immediately develops a new skill. The linked article tells the story of a 40-years old guy who banged his head against a wall while swimming, and woke up with a huge talent for playing piano (relevant video). Now, I've spent 15 years in formal music training and I can ensure you that nobody can fake that kind of talent without spending years in actual piano practice.

Here's the story of another guy who banged his head and became a math genius better with math; you can find several other stories like that. And maybe most puzzling of all is this paper, describing a dozen cases of sudden savants who didn't even bang their head, and acquired instant skill while doing nothing in particular.

I vaguely remember one sudden savant story being mentioned on a children book by Terry Deary, presented in his usual "haha, here's a funny trivia" way. But even as a child, I was pretty shocked to read that. Like, seriously? You could become a math genius just by banging your head on the wall in some very precise way? The concept lurked in a corner on my mind ever since.

I don't think that Sudden Savant Syndrome is just a scam; there are too many documented cases and most kind of talent are very, very difficult to fake. But if true, why there are so surprisingly few studies on that? Why is no one spending billions of dollars to replicate it in a controlled way? This is a genuine question; I know very little about biology and neuroscience, but it surely sounds way easier than rewriting the genetic code of every neuron in the brain...

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[-]A.H.4mo4121

Sorry to be a party pooper, but I find the story of Jason Padgett (the guy who 'banged his head and become a math genius') completely unconvincing. From the video that you cite, here is the 'evidence' that he is 'math genius':

  • He tells us, with no context, 'the inner boundary of pi is f(x)=x sin(pi/x)'. Ok!
  • He makes 'math inspired' drawings (some of which admittedly are pretty cool but they're not exactly original) and sells them on his website
  • He claims that a physicist (who is not named or interviewed) saw him drawing in the mall, and, on the basis of this, suggested that he study physics.
  • He went to 'school' and studied math and physics. He says started with basic algebra and calculus and apparently 'aced all the classes', but doesn't tell us what level he reached. Graduate? Post-graduate?
  • He was 'doing integrals with triangles instead of integrals with rectangles' 
  • He tells us 'every shape in the universe is a fractal'
  • Some fMRI scans were done on his brain which found 'he had conscious access to parts of the brain we don't normally have access to'.

As far as I can tell, he hasn't published any technical math/physics writings (peer-reviewed or otherwise). He wrote a book but as far as I can tell, this is mostly a memoir, with a bit of pop-math thrown in. From his website, this is what he's working on:

His [sic] is currently studying how all fractals arise from limits and how E=MC2 is itself a fractal.

...

His drawing of E=MC^2 is based on the structure of space time at the quantum level and is based on the concept that there is a physical limit to observation which is the Planck length and the geometry of Hawking Radiation at the quantum level and its possible connection to describing the Holographic Universe Principle. It also shows and agrees with the holographic principle that at the smallest level, the structure of space time is a fractal.

Yep, those certainly are physics-y words! Good luck to him making progress in this area!

Its suspicious to me that he doesn't have any writings on his mathematical works, so we are not able to judge what he's doing. (Even time-cube man posted his writings on the internet)

This is my summary of the story:

  • He was hit on the head and experienced some changes after this. (Very believable )
  • These changes were significant enough to be visible on fMRI scans. (Also very believable )
  • He experienced OCD-like symptoms and other personality changes after the injury (I'm not a neuroscientist, but this seems plausible)
  • He experienced seeing visual distortions and 'fractal-like' images after the injury. (Again, I'm not a neuroscientist, but this seems plausible)
  • The visual hallucinations and personality changes caused him to be more interested in fractals, geometric designs, art, and math. 
  • He took a few entry-level math classes and did ok in them.
  • The mugging took place in 2002 but apparently he hasn't produced any technical writing in the subjects of math and physics.
  • In 2015, he was running futon stores in Washington State

This all leads me to believe that he is not 'math genius'. I am agnostic about whether he is delusional about his abilities or whether he is a con-man.

[-]TAG4mo20

Amateur/crank physicists love diagrams.

I notice that wikipedia summarises him as an artistic savant.,

Ok, maybe I shouldn't have used the same words used by clickbait youtube videos.

Anyway, he seems more interested in drawing triangles than studying math textbooks, so I don't expect him to produce novel insigths. On the other hand, plenty of people are very good at math but never produce any technical writing on scientific journals. If banging your head can bring you from 50° percentile to 90° percentile in math attitude, that's still pretty big news even if you don't literally become a math genius (his story seems to strongly imply that his past self wouldn't have been able to pass those math classes).

[-]A.H.4mo20

plenty of people are very good at math but never produce any technical writing on scientific journals

Fair enough! Its just that, unless they produce technical results, or pass graduate exams or do something else tangible its quite hard to distinguish people who are very good at math from people who are not.

his story seems to strongly imply that his past self wouldn't have been able to pass those math classes

Obviously its hard to tell from that interview, but he seems to suggest that the reason he didn't pass his classes was because he spent time partying, bodybuilding and 'chasing girls' rather than studying. It doesn't necessarily seem like he would have been unable to pass the classes, just unwilling to put in the work. Even after he became interested in math, he still admitted to struggling with some of the classes, but he had the willpower to put in the work to understand it.

I think that your description of it being a change in 'math attitude' is a good one. It seems like his attitude (and willingness to persevere) changed, but not necessarily his ability.

Just to be clear: I think its super interesting that someone can have this kind of a change and it is interesting to study it! I'm just not convinced that it is a change in math ability.

[-]TAG4mo20

Everybody does some maths in school. It would have been helpful to know how well his former self did at it.

Suddenly the Monty Python monks make so much more sense

Monty Python And The Holy Grail Head Smack GIF - Monty Python And The Holy  Grail Head Smack Cult - Discover & Share GIFs

Why would you not title your post "Significantly Enhancing Adult Intelligence By Banging Head On The Wall May Be Possible"? This is just below the other on the front page, it would have been perfect!

On a more serious note: It sure is hard to fake those talents, much harder at least than faking not having them. I think they probably practiced before in secret then said this story. One relevant and similar situation is when people can talk fluidly in a foreign language after a coma.

Maybe I should change the title of my post to match this one

"Enhancing intelligence by making large numbers of gene edits"

Do we know which brain region was affected? Maybe it could be targeted non-invasively with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which is already used therapeutically on a number of mental disorders. Especially considering that some people didn't even bang their head, maybe brain damage is not actually required.

Apparently someone did exactly this in 2009. Could someone more familiar than me with the relevant literature have a look?

Having watched the video about the piano player, I think the simplest explanation is that the brain injury caused a change in personality that resulted in him being intensely interested in playing the piano. If somebody were to suddenly start practicing the piano intently for some large portion of every day, they'd become very skilled very fast, much faster than most learners (who would be unlikely to put in that much time).

The only part that doesn't fit with that explanation is the claim that he played skillfully the first time he sat down at the piano, but since there's no recording of it, I chalk that up to the inaccuracy of memory. It would have been surprising enough for him to play it at all that it could have seemed impressive even with not much technical ability.

Otherwise, I just don't see where the motor skills could have come from. There's a certain amount of arbitrariness to how a piano keyboard is laid out (such as which keys are white and which are black), and you're going to need more than zero practice to get used to that.

Have you ever played piano?

The kind of fluency that we see in the video is something that a normal person cannot acquire in just a few days, period. Even if he didn't literally play perfectly the first time, playing perfectly after one month would still be incredibly impressive. You plain don't become a pianist in one month, especially without a teacher, even if you spend all the time on the piano.

Also, this guy is apparently still not able to read sheet music and still doesn't know anything about music theory. It's difficult to explain in non-technical terms, but his music is exactly the kind of music that I would expect from an incredibly talented person who knows nothing about music theory.

What about the theory that this is all simply a lie, a hoax, an exaggeration? 9/10 when I investigate these kinds of stories they turn out to be false or misleading in some way.

You are very welcome to investigate! I don't deny that all of this is very perplexing. But it is at least plausible (in the sense of "not requiring to break laws of physics") than a head injury could have a one-in-a-million chance of modifying your brain in strange ways.

Consider that this guy holds public concerts since 2007, we have no way to deny that he can actually play piano (albeit in a strange, untrained way). The only way for this to be a scam would be for him to have trained alone in complete secret for something like 10 years.

Also, he claims to "see" music in a way that reminds me of one historical anecdote about Mozart (he also claimed to "see" whole symphonies compressed into points, waiting only to be unraveled).

Have you ever played piano?

Yes, literally longer than I can remember, since I learned around age 5 or so.

The kind of fluency that we see in the video is something that a normal person cannot acquire in just a few days, period.

The video was recorded in 2016, 10 years after his 2006 injury. It's showing the result of 10 years of practice.

You plain don't become a pianist in one month, especially without a teacher, even if you spend all the time on the piano.

I don't think he was as skilled after one month as he is now after 10 years.

I would guess though that you can improve a remarkable amount in one month if you play all day every day. I expect that a typical beginner would play about an hour a day at most. If he's playing multiple hours a day, he'll improve faster than a typical beginner.

Keep in mind also that he was not new to music, since he had played guitar previously. That makes a huge difference, since he'll already be familiar with scales, chords, etc. and is mostly just learning motor skills.

The video was recorded in 2016, 10 years after his 2006 injury. It's showing the result of 10 years of practice.

Ok, fair enough. But he started playing in concerts long before 2016, and the first recorded album was released on February 2007. Apparently he was selected as the 2007 Independent Artist of the Year by the LA Association of Independent Artists, which seems still quite impressive for someone starting to play less than one year before (is this a real association? I've never heard of it before).

while it seems like a weird thing to happen, it does not seem beyond reason that there will be a demonstration that, indeed, an impact can shock neurons into going into a high rate of learning that allows unexpectedly fast transfer learning from other parts of the brain by combining existing knowledge. in particular, someone who has an obsession with listening to music and has watched others play the piano, and then damages their motor cortex just enough to activate a repair mode, then starts practicing piano heavily, might be able to significantly outpace someone who has the other attributes but has not recently damaged their motor cortex just the right amount.

If this is actually possible, I expect it to be highly contingent. I don't expect to be able to replicate it on command without one of, 1. very hard to design and test drugs intended for the purpose, 2. possibly existing hardware like openwater or TMS, or 3. some other new method of very precise control of impacts to neurons.

Did you see the question on Psychonetics yet? I'm wondering if these ideas can be connected. Could someone learn a savant skill through Psychonetic practice? Has the Psychonetic community tried?

[-]Ben4mo21

Joke suggestion. Suppose every time you get banged on the head you become awesome at something.  But that almost all of those somethings haven't been invented yet, and many never will.

(eg. Caveman get hit by a rock thrown by another caveman. Becomes a brilliant pianist, lives on to death without knowing it, or even what a piano is.)

I'm pretty unconvinced by the piano savant thing. I can believe that a head injury might somehow open a pathway that makes it easy to translate the idea of sound in the mind into the geometric patterns that it corresponds to on a piano. It's true, that is difficult for most musicians. But there are plenty of recordings out there of this guy playing and his playing is.. not that great to be honest. I've known various people in my life who developed their own "outsider art" style of playing piano just by sitting at the instrument and improvising in an informal way. It's not that rare or that difficult.

What takes practice and training is developing the physical technique to handle virtuosic works, or an encyclopedic knowledge of harmony, chords and voicings, the sort of thing that high level jazz improv artists do. In one of the interviews this piano guy talks about how after his injury "it was like the soul of Beethoven jumped into my body and took control," except the thing is, he isn't playing Beethoven. I think it would be pretty revealing to see him make an attempt at one of Beethoven's piano sonatas.

I looked into the "math genius" (Jason Padgett) a few months ago and found zero evidence that he's a math genius. Instead some basic research suggested he's a typical crackpot pseudo-scientist very interested in the aesthetics of math, perhaps with some synesthesia. He's accomplished nothing in the field or even been evaluated with a difficult math test as far as I can tell. The fact that it's been reported without question that he's a genius by so many major media organizations is rather sad. He gives talks and writes with zero technical details but full of flowery philosophical statements dressed up with the barest shreds of math language.

He has a website where he sells rudimentary line art with grandiose titles and captions such as:

"This is how I see my hand. Quantum vibrations, vibrating through all possible paths and I see the one that is relative to me. Look at your own hand and see the fractal lines created by the cells as the mulitply. See how the groves form a specific print. That pattern is a fractal pattern. Everything that exists are fractals, even us"

I'm not even a math guy but the scent of bullshit is unbelievably strong. He spends a lot of time taking about classic new age topics like vibrations, fractals, and quantum. I'd be interested to see someone who actually does math read his content and report back.

Yeah, other people already pointed this out. I blame writers who cannot do math here. I know people in the humanities that would happily define a "math genius" anyone capable of correctly calculating an integral. 

Anyway, even taking for granted that he's just a crank who draws some cool triangles, it's still quite impressive that an head injury could turn a normal guy into a math crank.

I often hear hypnogogic music before sleep. Sometimes it is very beautiful and I never heard anything like this until I heard Karavaichuk recently. 

Around 10 years ago I had long sleepless night and heard some hypnogogic music. And suddenly I had an idea - I can send this music to my fingers - and they started playing on my blanket. I was sure at that moment that they are playing my music and if there was a piano, I can play it! Never experienced this again, may be because I started to sleep well.


So the point of my story is the idea that Sudden savant just reroutes his internal generative AI to external world.

[-]A.H.4mo10

I don't find it convincing that what you experienced has any relation to sudden savant syndrome. It sounds like you had a waking dream where you believed you can play the piano.

You did not actually play the piano and produce music though, right?

I have had dreams where I have believed I could do all kinds of things (play the guitar, lift heavy weights, fly etc.), but they didn't overflow in any way to real life. (I've even had dreams where I've thought to myself 'I know that I am dreaming, but this is definitely going to work when I wake up')

If I ask you to imagine a beautiful painting of a mountain, you could probably conjure up a fairly vivid mental image of one. But if I then gave your brushes and paints and asked you to recreate the picture on canvas, you would probably struggle, unless you were already an experienced painter. In dreams, the distinction between imagining and doing doesn't exist so strongly. If you can dream/imagine a beautiful painting, you can also dream/imagine putting a paintbrush in your hands, waving it over a canvas and producing the painting. In a dream, these experiences are equally convincing to the dreamer. But sadly, in my experience, real life doesn't work like that :(