Over the years I've had the unfortunate experience of leaving great stories on the "cutting room floor." One of them is the story of painter Anne Adams and composer Maurice Ravel, two people who lived in different countries almost a century apart yet had an extraordinary connection. Researching a documentary, especially one that explores a scientific mystery, one always takes twists and turns. Though it didn't make it into the final cut of NOVA scienceNOW's "How Smart Can We Get," the story of Adams and Ravel is one twist that has stayed with me.
Editor Jedd Ehrmann and I spent weeks looking for a way to integrate this story into the program, but alas we failed! Thanks to the internet we have the opportunity to share it with you. I hope you'll take a few minutes to watch it, then read on for more.
I came across the story while investigating a rare neurological disorder called acquired savant syndrome for NOVA scienceNOW. I knew what savant syndrome was from watching the movie "Rain Man." Dustin Hoffman plays the part of Raymond Babbitt, a savant with the uncanny ability to remember everything he's ever read. Savants have skills they never learned. Some, like the famous Kim Peek, have extraordinary memories; others, like blind, autistic savant Leslie Lemke, are natural born musicians. Leslie couldn't stand until he was 12 and didn't walk until he was 15, but at 16 he sat down at the piano and played Tchaikovsky.
Cases like these are very rare, but cases of "acquired" savant syndrome are even scarcer. Only a few dozen cases have been found to date. They were discovered by the man who gave the syndrome its name, psychiatrist Darold Treffert.
Treffert lives in Fond du Lac, in the middle of the Wisconsin countryside. He started the Savant Institute in his home office--a tiny room in his basement. The space is filled with file cabinets stuffed with documents he's collected for over 40 years. They describe the cases of over 300 savants. While collecting these stories he came across a few dozen cases of people who suddenly develop savant abilities after a head injury, acquired savants.
People like acquired savant Derek Amato. Amato, who is featured in the program, felt a sudden, compulsive desire to play piano--and, to his own surprise, found that he knew how to do so--after a concussion. Jon Sarkin became a painter after a stroke. After a brutal mugging, Jason Padgett began drawing extraordinary images based on mathematical equations.
What does Anne Adams have to do with these cases? Although Anne was not an acquired savant, she did experience a sudden burst of creativity late in life, after she was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia. MRI scans revealed what was happening in her brain as Anne's dementia progressed and her artistic ability flourished. (More about this can been seen in the program.) Treffert believes her case gives us a one-of-a-kind glimpse into how sudden abilities emerge in the injured brain.
After learning about Anne I tracked down her family in Vancouver, Canada. Her husband, Professor Robert Adams, and son Alex shared stories of how art slowly took over Anne's life. They have preserved hundreds, possibly thousands, of her paintings and drawings, which fill the walls of Alex's home. But one of their favorites was given to Dr. Bruce Miller, director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
Dr. Miller is the neurologist who diagnosed Anne. Over the years he has discovered a handful of patients like Anne who experienced a sudden burst of creativity during the course of the same form of dementia.
Miller was especially taken with Anne's case, and her artwork. In fact, the painting Anne's family gave him hangs in his office; it's called "Unraveling Bolero."
And this is the part of the story that hit the cutting room floor--the part that has nothing to do with acquired savant syndrome but is a fascinating tale on its own. The story of how two people who lived worlds apart are connected through the neurological changes that were taking place in their brains. Miller found their connection so fascinating that he and his colleagues wrote a paper about it. Though it didn't make it into the broadcast, I'm glad to have the opportunity to share it with you here.
Editor's note: "How Smart Can We Get?" premieres Wednesday, October 24 at 10 pm ET on most PBS stations.