What makes for a genius? This question has motivated the work of countless scientists and philosophers throughout history. When reading the fascinating biographies of individuals with seemingly unparalleled talent, many of us cannot help but wonder how our lives might have been different had we received their gift. Historically the term ‘genius’ has been attributed primarily to those who have made a significant contribution to the sciences or the arts that appears to originate in intellectual abilities remarkably different from those of the average individual. An ingenious mind is not achievable but given. This typical understanding of 'genius' is too restrictive, however, as it excludes many people with extraordinary mental ability.
Daniel Kish is one such genius. Despite being completely blind since childhood, he lives a relatively normal life mountain biking and camping alongside sighted people. Daniel is fortunate to have developed a skill many believe impossible—human echolocation. Much like bats and dolphins, human echolocators are able to use the sounds reflected from objects in their environment to navigate in real time. He has no memories of seeing with his eyes, but has always “seen” through his ears. Daniel believes he acquired this skill because his parents often left him to fend for himself, forcing him to use the tools he had in order to survive.
Though Daniel's skill and insight are remarkable, they are not beyond reach. Daniel actually teaches other blind people to echolocate. With a little determination, over 500 blind children now successfully echolocate thanks to a teaching organization that Daniel runs. A developmental psychologist, Daniel has constructed a curriculum that focuses on differentiating objects from one another and their background. His method works so well that it can even be used to teach sighted people the skill of echolocation.
Other cases show that genius can come with practice. Take for example Mark Nissen, who is ranked internationally for reciting Pi past its 22,000th decimal point. Nissen developed his own way of helping him recite long numbers from memory. According to Nissen, the complex tactics he uses are quite common throughout the community of those who take part in memory competitions. Still, these tasks are so difficult that developing the appropriate skills require serious dedication.
In other cases of extraordinary mental talent, the acumen is acquired through accidental events later in life. After a brutal attack that left Jason Padgett with a severe concussion, he awoke to see the world very differently than before. He noticed that the character of his perceptual experience had changed significantly. Instead of fluid motion, movement appeared as a series of frozen pictures almost like a flipbook cartoon. If the moving object were curved, spiraling or non-solid, complex geometrical patterns would appear around them. When he viewed curved objects statically, he saw coarse tangent and secant line boundaries instead of smooth curvature.
Though he had no prior training in mathematics, Jason became obsessed with drawing remarkable geometrical images using only a pencil and straightedge. This sort of brilliance originating in brain abnormalities is also known as 'savant syndrome.' After struggling with his obsession, Jason enrolled in mathematics classes at a local community college. He found himself catching onto the meaning of formulas via associated visual imagery similar to what he had been seeing in the concrete world. One drawing, which he calls “hf = mc2," looked much like a picture of electron interference patterns that researchers came across several years later. It turned out that Jason had acquired a unique type of synesthesia, a condition in which people involuntarily experience or visualize things as having unusual sensory features. For example, color-grapheme synesthetes can't help but see numbers or letters as colored. Jason since then has shared much of his amazing geometric artwork with people around the world.
Derek Amato is another intriguing case of acquired savant syndrome. After striking the bottom of a pool he experienced the sudden urge to play the piano despite no more than very minimal experimentation with the guitar years earlier. He arrived at his friend’s house the next day and immediately went upstairs to the music room, where he sat down and played the piano. His fingers just “knew where to go.” After five hours of playing beautifully, his friends were moved to tears. “We didn't know if God was in the room. We didn't know what to think,” he tells us.
Like Jason, Derek also acquired synesthesia, but instead of seeing mathematics, Derek sees little black and white squares that correspond to keys on the piano. If he follows the squares with his hands, he plays as though he has been a musician his whole life. This talent is more than a mere gratuitous change to Derek’s life, it is his life. Derek has no control over the composition process. It is literally happening all the time. And that can be anxiety-provoking for Derek. If he spends an extended period of time away from the piano, he becomes extremely stressed out. He must play out what his mind is composing to stay sane. Derek copes with this obsession by regularly performing at music venues all over the country.
These cases show us that genius needn't be a "gift" received at birth. In cases like those of Daniel and Mark, a fantastic skill can emerge as a response to a particularly difficult task or after hard practice and dedication. Cases like those of Jason and Derek exemplify more traditional marks of genius insofar as their conscious intentions have little influence on their abilities. But such cases deviate from more traditional cases in involving ordinary people who acquire an extraordinary mind in quite accidental ways. The traditional story paints a picture in which genius is something only to be inherited. As we look at a broader range of cases, as we have been doing in our research in the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab, we learn that fantastic abilities may lie dormant in all of us, waiting to be exposed.