The Amazing Stories of 6 Sudden Savants

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.
* * * * *
If you could tap into your brain for one exceptional ability, what would it be? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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