Conversations on Creativity with Darold Treffert, Part V: Th

Darold Treffert, M.D. on the acquired and sudden savant

Posted Apr 19, 2011

Darold Treffert, M.D. is considered one of the foremost experts on savantism in the world. Dr. Treffert has published two books on savant syndrome: "Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome" in 2006 and "Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant" in 2010. He has been a contributor to numerous articles in professional journals and has participated in many broadcast and documentary television programs around the world. In his efforts to raise public understanding about autism and savant syndrome he has regularly appeared on programs such as 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today, CBS Evening News and many others. Dr. Treffert was a technical consultant to the award-winning movie Rain Man that made "autistic savant" household terms and he maintains a very popular website at hosted by the Wisconsin Medical Society.

Dr. Treffert was gracious enough to have a wide-ranging conversation with me. Over the course of a few days, we had a delightful time chatting about autism, savantism, genius, nature, nurture, intelligence, creativity, lessons learned, recent advances, and the future. This was one of the most satisfying and elucidating conversations I have ever had. I learned many things and it is my pleasure to share our in depth conversation with all of you. In my view, this interview demonstrates quite clearly the need for more compassion and research on all different kinds of minds and ways of achieving greatness.

In this fifth part, we discussed the acquired and sudden savant.

SCOTT: For the acquired savant, what brain areas are usually affected?

DAROLD: The ways in which acquired savants show up are usually the same ways that congenital, or non-acquired, savant syndrome shows up. They tend to show up in the same areas: music, art, math, visual, spatial skills, and calendar calculating, although calendar calculating probably isn't quite as prominent in that group. They tend to show up quite quickly, or sort of explode on the scene and they then tend to have an obsessive sort of forceful quality about them in the same way as savant skills. So they tend to show up in the same ways.

Acquired savants are relatively rare, or at least more are coming to my attention, but that's only recent, so we have not had a lot of them to look at and to study. And only few of them have had any imaging at all. The best studied group, however, of acquired savants, is Dr. Bruce Miller's frontal dementia patients in San Francisco. And he's reported these in three or four reports. He started with a series of five patients who had frontotemporal dementia and then he expanded to 12. These are people who were formally neurotypical, or normal people. They may have had an interest in music or art but had no special skill or abilities. But as the dementia proceeded in their case, their musical or artistic skills came to the fore, sometimes at really a prodigious level, where this either had not been there at all before or else were there only in minor degree.

Interestingly, he did SPECT studies, which is a form of imaging, and what he found was that the lesion in those patients was in the left anterior temporal area. And then he did a SPECT imaging of an artistic autistic child, and using that same technique he found the dysfunction in the left anterior temporal area. So the largest case studies that we have so far, the largest group of studies so far, demonstrate that that is a left anterior temporal phenomena.

Now, how uniform that's going to be with other acquired savants, I think we'll find out because only now are we really beginning to do imaging on them. There's a well-known case of an acquired savant in England, by the name of Tommy McHugh, who after his stroke has become a well-known artist, prolific and obsessive in his work. His case has been written up in a number of journals, but the problem is they really can't do imaging on him because when he had his stroke, he had to have aneurism clips and that prevents some of the kind of imaging that they need to do.

But we are doing some current imaging on some acquired savants, so I'm going to be very interested to know what happened. My guess is that the question would be, well, okay, if a brain injury or stroke can produce savants, how come not everybody that has a left-brain injury or stroke, become savants? Well, I think we'll find it's related to where that area of damage is, because I do think that if I had to name an area which is probably implicated in savant syndrome in the left hemisphere, it would be the left anterior temporal area. And so it depends on where the injury is as to whether savant abilities will emerge.

Secondly, it depends on the endowment of that particular ability within that individual, and by that I mean that we are all endowed differently, as I said earlier, that some of us are more mathematical, or athletic, or artistic, or musical. And to the extent that we are musical, leaving aside the savant, just in the normal population, that talent is sort of distributed along the bell shaped curve.

There are people at the extremes who aren't able to do anything musically, and then others sort of fall in the middle. And the same thing with math, and the same thing with art. You'll find people who are geniuses, or prodigies at the far end of the bell shaped curve, and I think you will find some of the acquired savants in that category who happened to have been endowed with that kind of talent, which explains why not everyone becomes an acquired savant. So it depends on where the injury is, and it depends on the genetic endowment of that individual. With respect to why some acquired savants are musical, and some are good at the arts, and some are mathematical, why aren't they all the same; I think that has to do with this genetic endowment that all of us have.

SCOTT: That sounds very reasonable. And that sounds very sensible that there are both the main specific effects and other effects going on there as well. Can acquired savants come about with only minor tradeoffs in terms of disability?

DAROLD: Yeah, they can. There are some cases that have come to my attention where there's been a head injury, or getting struck by lightning and surviving, with really no disability or residual. So there are cases that I'm aware of where there's been some incident which triggered the acquired savant ability, but is not associated with long term disability, so that can occur. But I think that's probably the exception rather than the rule in that I think many of the acquired savants do end up with some residual disability.

But it certainly can occur and that, again, I think is dependent on the type of brain injury, the extent of the brain injury, and the location of the brain injury. But the answer to your question is yes, I've seen that, and I have some such cases.

SCOTT: Okay. That's really fascinating. You mentioned the case of Jim Karol, who was involved in a serious auto accident when he was 14 that was so bad he wasn't expected to live long, but he defied all expectations, ended up discovering an amazing aptitude for numbers and mathematics, and obtained an MBA. It's fascinating that he had no interest in math or numbers before the accident and following the accident showed high ability in these areas.

I did notice that his IQ after the accident was within the 135, 150 range. That is extraordinarily high, and it made me wonder, do you think his IQ was that high before the accident? You describe a lot of cases of acquired specific talents, but I was wondering if you were aware of any cases of acquired general talents, such as, a sudden high IQ?

DAROLD: Well, that's a good question, and I, frankly, hadn't thought of it until you asked it. I haven't seen that. On the other hand, I haven't been looking for it either. I wonder if there might be some cases out there where that, in fact, happened.
I think in his case that he had this high IQ before the accident, it's just that after the accident, it sort of narrowed, or honed in on this particular ability which simply was not in his repertoire before. But it would be interesting to see whether there can be an increase in general abilities rather than specific abilities. I haven't seen that, but it doesn't mean it hasn't occurred. I'm going to keep my eye out on that.

SCOTT: I think it would be really interesting to find out more about that. You describe fascinating cases where neurotypical people suddenly show a high skill following an epiphany-like moment, where such comprehension and mastery didn't exist before. For instance, you describe the case of K.A., who at the age of 26 ½ after years of playing the piano had a Eureka experience and suddenly got the entire rule structure of music. I think this is really neat, but how is this possible? It seems magical, doesn't it?

DAROLD: It's the sort of aha! experience that's magnified, that some of us have had along the way in our life where, let's say when you're taking calculus, or algebra in my case, that everybody else in the class seemed to have that aha! experience, I've-got-it experience, long before I did. But when you're struggling, and you're working, and you're trying to understand X and Y, and equations, or with geometry, or calculus, all of a sudden it comes to you, and I've got it.
I use the example of learning to ride a bike that when you first try to learn to ride a bike, you work very carefully at keeping your balance, and trying to keep one pedal in front of the other, and all that, and all of a sudden, ah, you know, I got it. And that's true of skiing, or it's true of all kinds of things.

Most of us, I think, have those gradual aha! experiences along the way in school and learning. But with these cases that I mention, and have come across, in particular, the one with K.A., is that he was trying to learn music, I mean, he was working at it and trying to learn and practice. And then he walked into the mall this particular day and they happened to have a piano there, and he was with his friends and he sat down and he started playing the piano like he had never had played the piano, in a way in which he had never played the piano before, and his friends said, what have you been hiding from us, I didn't know you could play like this, I didn't know either, and, so it's the epiphany.

I wrote about his case, and I posted that on the website, and then I got other cases where people said that's what happened to me, and then they would describe it. I don't have a lot of those, but I have a number of those.

Now, this is in the absence of any injury or any disability, and they're certainly curious incidents, and why that happened at that time in his life, I don't know. But I can only use the equivalent of the aha! experience that most of us sort of come about gradually. But in his case, and some of these others, it simply happened suddenly. Now, why that happened in his case at that point, I don't know. But I certainly am curious to find out.

SCOTT: I note that you said that K.A. also reported having a heightened ability to recall autobiographical memories, is that right?


SCOTT: Do you think that ability was linked at all to his sudden musical insight?

DAROLD: Yeah, I think it might be. I wasn't aware of his autobiographical memory capacity before we began to correspond about his musical epiphany, but I think that may indeed be the case that there is some link in that.

SCOTT: Do you think IQ plays a role in sudden savant learning? After all, I note that one of your case studies, J.D., had an IQ of 135. I agree it is quite remarkable that J.D. before the age of 16 ½ didn't show much progress in guitar but then suddenly acquired the ability to comprehend all the intricate rules of musical structure, but how do we know that all the other case studies you mention in that chapter aren't also linked to a high IQ and the increased rate of general learning ability that such a high IQ affords? I'm just playing devil's advocate.

DAROLD: Yeah. I think if we're talking about the sudden savant, my sample of those is pretty small, but I wouldn't be surprised if in that group they all had a uniformly high IQ. And to what extent that sort of set them up, or sort of predestined aha! moment, that may well be the link. I think we'll find that over time.

The other case that comes to mind is Rudiger Gamm. I guess he was not a savant, but he describes not having any particular interest in math at all in the high school, or in school. He had no particular special interest in it, and then he happened to be sitting one day, and he saw a program on somebody who had an ability to do lightning calculating and he said, well, heck, I can do that. It just occurred to him. That was, first of all, remarkable, and secondly, that he could do it, and he certainly can. And I'm sure that he has a very high IQ.

So, my sample so far includes only people with high IQ. I'll be curious to see if I encounter any other sudden savants where that's not the case.

SCOTT: Okay. Are the abilities found among sudden savants always accompanied by disability?

DAROLD: No, they're not. In fact, among the sudden savants, there really is an absence of disability.

SCOTT: So what are the implications of sudden-savant phenomenon for all the aspiring late bloomers of the world?

DAROLD: Well, I think that we should probably start searching around a little earlier in our lives for what I call parallel activities, because most of us get entrenched in our careers. And, of necessity, we're earning a living, and it's taking our time, and we're building our résumé, and we want our résumé generally to be our proficiency within our field, because chances are we're going to be applying for another position within the field. So we tend to put off a lot of this sort of what I call parallel discovery until we're either very successful and have the time to do that, or more often until we're retired.

It's interesting that there are a number of very successful, what are called, learning and retirement programs developing around the country now. We have one in this area in which people who are retired can go to college, in essence, taking things, courses that they always wanted to take but never did, you know, a course in geology, or a course in archaeology, or a course in you name it which they may have always wanted to do and may have had some interest in, but never really got into it.

Sometimes along the way, when people are actively working, they will start to do a search for their roots and maybe get really interested in ancestry and become very good at what was just a hobby. But I think that we shouldn't wait quite that long to develop and look for those parallel interests of ours and not sometimes see them as frivolous and take them a little more seriously, and spend some time and energy and maybe even capital in pursuing them.

What happens is most of us are so busy in our lives with our families and our vocation which we should be, but we tend not to look at what I call these parallel interests, and they develop along the way. And sometimes one can say, well, you know, why should I grow my own garden and spend all that time when I can buy carrots cheaper at the supermarket and just put aside that kind of an interest.

I happen to have an interest in my orchard but by the time I count out the money that I put into the orchard, I could buy apples, and peaches, and apricots probably cheaper, but they're just not as good and it takes a certain amount of time to tend the orchard and to do it myself instead of hiring somebody to do it. So I just sort of developed that parallel interest that gives me a great deal of pleasure and sometimes frustration.

But I think that what I call rummaging around in our right hemisphere a little bit more means that instead of when I drive from here to Chicago, chances are I'm on a tight timeframe, I'll take the freeway because it's the quickest, and it'll get me there most efficiently to O'Hare Airport. But sometimes I'll start out a lot sooner and take a side road, which takes us along the Lake Michigan, through Milwaukee, and Racine, and Kenosha, and it's a much prettier trip, but it's not nearly as efficient, but I discover all sorts of things on the side roads that I never would have discovered otherwise.

And that means sometimes just stepping back and taking the time to do that. That might be music, it might be learning other languages, it might be travel, I guess. People do travel and sometimes they often see that as a legitimate use of capital and so forth, and I guess it is, but I think I'm talking about some of these other skills that we might discover.

I've got some friends who are retired. One has gotten into geology in a way that's really amazing, to him and to me, and yet he just now is able to explore that area. Let's not wait quite as long to find out about some of our other talents.


Other parts of the series:

  Part I, Defining Autism, Savantism, and Genius

  Part II, Dispelling Myths about Autism

  Part III, Inside the Savant Mind

  Part IV, The Origins of Extraordinary Savant Skills

  Part VI, What Savants Reveal about Greatness

  Part VII, The Inner Savant in All of Us

  Part VIII, Lessons Learned and Recent Advances


© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Dr. Treffert completed both medical school and a psychiatric residency at the University of Wisconsin where he is presently a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry. Following his training he developed the Child-Adolescent Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. It was there he met his first autistic savant in 1962. He then was Superintendent of WMHI until 1979 when he became Director of Community Mental Health services in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin where he now lives. Dr. Treffert has received honorary awards from the Wisconsin Mental Health Association, the Office of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He has been listed in The Best Doctors in America, by peer selection, beginning in 1979. He resides in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and is on the staff of St. Agnes Hospital in that community. His web site can be accessed at

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