accidental genius, the burning need to create

The odd irony of growing older is that your interests change and develop like fine wines or moldy cheeses, and often what you are passionate about in your middle years and beyond are things you passed over when you were oh so busy with other things in your youth. I’m a classic example of either that, or just sheer stupidity, for in retrospect I walked right past so many opportunities en route to others that sometimes I do wish I could rewind and pause at certain scenes.

I remembered today the visit I had by a friend of a friend from Spain who came to the U.S. to participate in an important conference about autism. This was years ago, in the days when autism was just beginning to be spoken of as a growing epidemic. I vaguely remember finding autism an interesting topic, but not nearly as much as I find it now.  The brain, it seems, has become a passion of mine, just when mine is rapidly losing cells (ok, I’m not that old yet, hopefully I have at least a few decades left before it’s total mush).

One of my fascinations of late is acquired savant syndrome, which is also called accidental genius. A chance brush with fate in the form of a blow to the head, a brain lesion, or the progression of something as terrible as dementia or stroke and suddenly the person who before showed zero interest or creative talent in a certain area (music, writing, painting are among the areas where this seems to occur) becomes, literally overnight, a prodigy. Not only that, but they have this sudden need, bordering on obsession, to express this new creativity, often to a point where it becomes as much a burden as it is a gift.

Their stories are incredible. Twists of fate in the form of a baseball, a bolt of lightning, a broken blood vessel, brought intense changes in the lives of, among others, the sculptor Alonzo Clemons, the artist Tommy McHugh, the pianist Dr. Anthony Cicoria, and the painter Franco Magnani, “il pittore della memoria,” whose story was documented by Oliver Sacks and whose work you can see in my post and on his website where he tells the story of these memory paintings.

Perhaps one of the most poignant yet inspiring stories is that of Jon Sarkin, a chiropractor who suffered a sudden brain aneurism which left him severely debilitated but which gave him not only the ability but the need, a burning visceral undeniable need, to create. He is a brave man with an equally brave family for dealing with such change and challenge.

Imagine the implications of deciphering and even harnessing the hows and whys of these brain changes, of determining whether or not it can be controlled (either by facilitating this “release” of creative juices or, in some cases, to suppress it when it becomes too intense). Yet another example of how the loss of something is compensated by the enhancement of another, that inherent balancing of nature that awes us with its logic, its patterns. What links all of these cases of sudden brilliance together is the onset of a sudden disinhibition, an intense freedom of expression, wildness of creativity, all of which is a beautiful gift yet also comes with a dark side, as extremes are oft to do.

I think of all the creative geniuses throughout history and of their works, of the tales of their obsessions and drive and wonder if they too did not have similar brains to these modern day savants. I think of those writers who say they cannot not write, or musicians or painters or so many great creative forces who seem so driven, and I look at them differently, understanding that there are forces way beyond normal human will which control these. The creative wannabes, not blessed (or cursed, or both) with this intensity of creation seek it through external means, yet usually crash and burn for genius is not created but apparently hovers within waiting for the key to unlock it.

I’m envious in a way, of that passion, especially as I dabble here and there with my own, yet I am in utter awe of just how difficult their lives often are, how complex and challenging and what fortitude they need to balance this burning within. Yet ahhhh, what wonderful things they bring to all of us through this release, this glorious release of what lay so quietly within, escaping with a roar.



2 thoughts on “accidental genius, the burning need to create

  1. This is so interesting. I had never heard of this before. Itakes me want to look up sone of the names you mentioned who have it and their stories. Maybe there really is a creative gene or in this case a creative brain spot.

    1. It’s pretty fascinating, yes. Whether it’s a gene or just that our brains and their development are far more complex than we are even capable of imagining. I’m such a literal person, usually believing that most of what we are lies in our will to focus our energies on certain aspects and to avoid others, but truly the more I learn the more humbled I am when I see how the myriad of factors in play to make us what we are, so many of which we have no control over.

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