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The Amazing Stories of 6 Sudden Savants

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For nearly 50 years, Dr. Darold Treffert of the University of Wisconsin has been studying savants—developmentally disabled people who demonstrate exceptional levels of genius in one particular skill set. Most savants are born with their unique abilities, but a small number are what Treffert calls "acquired savants," people who had their talents unlocked after an illness or injury affected the brain. These cases have led Treffert and other researches to theorize that we might all have these capabilities lying dormant in our minds. Here are the stories of six acquired savants—they might convince you of the genius inside us all.

1. Dr. Anthony Cicoria

At a park in 1994, Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon, was hanging up a pay phone when lightning from a gathering storm struck the booth, shooting through the phone and into his head. Luckily, the woman waiting to use the phone was a nurse and she performed CPR, saving his life. After a few weeks, Cicoria recovered and everything seemed to return to normal.


Shortly afterwards, he had a mysterious, insatiable need to listen to classical piano music. But he soon found that just listening to the music wasn't cutting it. So, despite never showing any desire to play an instrument before, he bought sheet music and began teaching himself the piano. Learning was slow going though, because instead of playing the Chopin composition in front of him, he kept wanting to play the melodies that were echoing inside his head instead. When he realized these songs were of his own creation, he began furiously writing them down until he had dozens composed. In 2008, Cicoria released a CD of his music called, Notes From An Accidental Pianist and Composer. His best-known song from the album is fittingly titled, "The Lightning Sonata."

2. Tommy McHugh

Britain's Tommy McHugh was in the bathroom getting ready for work as a carpenter when he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his head. Blood began running out his nose, eyes, and ears, and he collapsed to the floor. It took five hours for surgeons to stop the bleeding from two aneurysms, but, miraculously, he survived. When he returned home, McHugh, with no previous interest whatsoever in the arts, was overtaken by a powerful urge to create.

It began with scribbled poetry that filled notebooks, then drawings flowed out of him without any conscious thought. But he truly found his outlet when he started painting.

McHugh's artwork is made up primarily of faces, which he describes as his personality crying for help to save him from his obsession. McHugh has said the images in his mind change so rapidly that by the time he's started painting, that image has been replaced by another, which he feels compelled to paint as well. Because of the constantly evolving pictures in his head, his home is covered in paintings—on canvas, on the walls, even on the ceiling and floor. When he runs out of space to paint, he simply covers previous works. He estimates there are some areas of his house with a layer of paint three inches thick, hiding dozens of pieces underneath.

His compulsion keeps him painting for an average of 18 hours a day, seven days a week. He recently opened a gallery with artwork for sale to help support himself and his uncontrollable obsession.

3. Patient X

A young man living in a sanitarium in the early part of the 20th century was known in medical journals only as "X." He was reported to be 23 years old, but had a mental age of only seven. Earlier in life, he was a very healthy, even gifted 3-year-old musician, who had already learned how to sing songs in English, German, French, and Hungarian. He was just starting to learn the piano when he contracted pneumonia and meningitis. Sadly, the illness stunted his mental development. When he was moved to the institution for care, his IQ was measured as 46.

During his time in the hospital, X was continually drawn to the piano. His doctors soon discovered that inside this otherwise feeble mind lived a musical genius. After hearing a song or reading sheet music only once, he could play the tune flawlessly. And he could recall that song again at a moment's notice, even if it had been years since he last performed it.

Despite his amazing talent with performing music, he was never able to write his own compositions, because he seemed to lack the capacity for creativity. He was, for lack of a better term, a living jukebox with a catalog of hundreds of songs, all played from memory.

4. Sabine

By the time Sabine entered school at the age of six years old in 1910, she had thus far lived a perfectly healthy, happy life. But shortly after she began her education, she contracted typhoid fever, which caused convulsions, followed by an extended period of unconsciousness. The illness left her blind, mute, and with a childlike personality that she never outgrew. Over time, her sight returned, as did a low-level of speech functions, but she was still incapable of taking care of herself.

Around the age of 13, Sabine became interested in coins and buttons. For whatever reason, she preferred separating these items into groups of 16. While teaching her this basic arithmetic to learn the value of her money, doctors soon realized she could perform much more complex calculations including addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication with astonishing ease. For example, she could square any number from 11 to 99 in 10 seconds or less. When asked to multiply 23 x 23, she would almost immediately answer 529. But what really surprised researchers was her ability to solve the problem in a different way, just as quickly, by somehow integrating her beloved number 16. So when she answered 529, she would also point out that 529 was the same as 33 x 16 + 1. For 14 x 14, she could quickly answer 196, and then promptly follow it up with, "Or 12 x 16 + 4."

5. Orlando Serrell

Ask Orlando Serrell what day of the week it was on August 17, 1979, and he could tell you. That was the day 10-year old Serrell was playing baseball and got hit on the left side of the head. He finished the rest of the game, so he figured he was OK and never sought medical attention, despite a headache that lasted for days.


When the headache went away, Serrell found he had a special talent called "calendar calculating." Toss out any date since his accident—say, February 28, 1990—and almost immediately Serrell will tell you what day of the week that date fell on (it was a Wednesday, by the way). Most of the time, he can even tell you what the weather was like that day in Virginia, where he lives.

He hasn't memorized calendars or any kind of complicated algorithms in order to perform these feats; he says he can just see the answers in front of him. Aside from his unusual abilities, Serrell will be the first to admit he's otherwise a pretty average guy.

6. Alonzo Clemons

Alonzo Clemons was always good with his hands. At the age of two, he was drawn to Play-Doh, sculpting and molding it for hours at a time. When he was three, Clemons fell and sustained a serious head injury that changed his life forever. For years, he was unable to speak, tie his shoes, or even dress himself. Doctors determined he had an IQ of 40. The only time Clemons really seemed to come alive was when he held a piece of clay.


Clemons can look at any animal—from a horse to a dolphin to a rhinoceros—for just a few moments, and then, using only his hands, create a very detailed, three-dimensional replica out of clay or wax. And while he sculpts, he will only access the images in his mind for reference. These images, with his very precise sense of touch, are so accurate that he can even sculpt in the dark. For years his work was based on photographs, which gave his pieces a static, vacant style. But when he began visiting zoos and horse stables, observing the animals in motion, his art became expressive, flowing, and alive.

At about the same time, Clemons showed signs of improvement in everyday abilities. He began talking, albeit only in short phrases, but his progression over the years has helped him hold down a part-time job and learn to take care of himself. He even took up another hobby, power lifting, a sport he participates in at the Special Olympics.

Clemons has made quite a name for himself in the art community. His 12" bronze statues routinely sell for around $1,000 each. He's also sold larger commissions, like his most famous work, "Three Frolicking Foals," one of his only life-sized statues. Most artists would require months to create a large piece with the same level of detail. But Clemons finished "Foals" in just 15 days.
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If you could tap into your brain for one exceptional ability, what would it be? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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