Story transcripts

Accidental Genius

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Howard Sacre

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie, an ordinary bloke takes a blow to the head and then, suddenly, incredibly is transformed into a genius.

Far-fetched right? Well you're about to meet three people who've gone through that experience in real life.

They've all suffered some kind of brain damage and survived to become gifted musicians, mathematicians and artists.

Scientists call them acquired savants.

It's a fascinating field of study and it could just hold the key to making us all a whole lot smarter.

Full transcript:

STORY – LIAM BARTLETT: Tony Cicoria was 42 – an orthopaedic surgeon with no real interest in music – when a streak of genius came, literally, in a bolt from the blue.

TONY: I started having this incredible desire to hear classical piano music, which was a fairly large departure from anything I was interested in.

LIAM BARTLETT: Why, what were you normally used to?

TONY: I was a kid of the ‘60s, I listened to rock ‘n’ roll.

LIAM BARTLETT: Tony Cicoria’s remarkable story began here at Sleepy Hollow Lake in upstate New York. It was during a family picnic that Tony decided he wanted to use a public telephone that used to be attached to this building. Incredibly, just as he held up the receiver to his ear, a bolt of lightning struck the roof.

TONY: And I saw this big flash of light come out of the phone and hit me in the face, and I remember it hit me right in the corner of the mouth, and it just sent me flying backwards like a ragdoll.

LIAM BARTLETT: Tony wasn’t breathing and was unconscious, until a passing nurse administered CPR, but he remembers every moment because he watched it all happen.

TONY: I was having an out-of-body experience, and I saw myself on the ground, and I remember when I saw the body there, I remember going – I was surprised and I said “oh shit, I’m dead.”

LIAM BARTLETT: That’s me on the ground.

TONY: Yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: And if you think that experience is a bit on the strange side, what happened to Tony in the weeks that followed was even more extraordinary – developing an obsessional desire to hear and play classical music.

TONY: And I was so taken with it that I listened to it all day long. I made my family listen to it. And then listening to it wasn’t enough, and I came to the realisation that I wanted to learn how to play. It clearly was an obsession beyond anything I’d ever experienced.

LIAM BARTLETT: But what was it, Tony? A deep urge?

TONY: I really felt like the only reason I had survived the lightning was, had something to do with music.

LIAM BARTLETT: Tony began piano lessons, getting up at 4:00am to practice. After work, he’d play until midnight. Now 60 years old, Tony is a virtuoso – an accidental genius – one of just a tiny number of people in the world known as an acquired savant.

DAROLD: The acquired savant is by definition somebody who has had some sort of a central nervous system incident and then this dormant potential floods forth.

LIAM BARTLETT: Their gifts range from the extraordinary sculptural skills of Alonzo Clemens to the total recall of dates and events exemplified by Orlando Serrell.

LIAM BARTLETT: What years has Christmas Day fallen on a Saturday?

ORLANDO: ‘82, ‘99, ‘93, 2004.

LIAM BARTLETT: How do you do that?

ORLANDO: Don’t ask me. Don’t ask me.

LIAM BARTLETT: All acquired their sudden ability from a traumatic injury, and after 50 years studying them, Psychiatry Professor Darold Treffert believes we all have an untapped potential.

DAROLD: Within each of us does lie this dormant potential, and if triggered, however triggered, it can come to the surface, and that’s what I call the little Rain Man within each of us.

DUSTIN: Now flying’s very dangerous. 1987 there were 30 airline accidents. 211 were fatalities.

TOM: Continental

DUSTIN: Continental crashed November 15, 1987. Flight 1713, 28 casualties.

DAROLD: I think there is a little Rain Man within each of us. The trick is to trigger that without some kind of central nervous system incident, and I believe we can do that.

LIAM BARTLETT: The incident for Orlando Serrell came when he was hit in the head by a baseball.

ORLANDO: Right up in here, right up in this area, where I was hit at.

LIAM BARTLETT: Was it a hard throw?

ORLANDO: It was a hard throw.

LIAM BARTLETT: How long after that did you realise that you had this amazing memory recall for dates and days?

ORLANDO: Like a month later. Like, I got hit by a ball August 17, 1979, on a Friday.

LIAM BARTLETT: Orlando was a 10-year-old street kid, and joined this rare club of human specimens – becoming an acquired savant. In his case, he became a human calendar calculator. So how are you seeing the answer? How do you do it?

ORLANDO: Well, someone ask me December 3rd ‘83, Saturday. I see that day.

LIAM BARTLETT: You just see it in the front of your head?

ORLANDO: I see it right there. Somebody ask me December 3rd, 1983, it was a Saturday, and it rained.

LIAM BARTLETT: And how does it come so quick?

ORLANDO: It just – it’s there.

LIAM BARTLETT: It all of a sudden appears.

ORLANDO: It’s there, right, that quick.

LIAM BARTLETT: And how many times have you been wrong?

ORLANDO: None. None.

LIAM BARTLETT: And we quickly realised he’s not faking it. We have a big horse race in Australia called the Melbourne Cup. If we go back to 1993, the Melbourne Cup was held on November 2nd.

ORLANDO: Tuesday.

LIAM BARTLETT: Heh. Not bad. Not bad. We have a football game in Australia called AFL, right.


LIAM BARTLETT: Okay, so the AFL Final was played in Australia last year on October the first. What day was that?

ORLANDO: Saturday, that was right, ‘cause I had fried fish that day.


ORLANDO: Yeah, we had it – had a function that day. We had a cook-out, we had fried the fish on October 1st.

HAIRDRESSER: You know, I was telling some people about you.

LIAM BARTLETT: Orlando doesn’t just recall days and dates. He remembers everything that happened to him, every hour of the day since the accident 33 years ago, and wherever he goes, he loves to show it off.

ORLANDO: Yeah, I can tell you what happened on your birthday in 1988. It rained on your birthday on a Friday.

HAIRDRESSER: It did rain on my birthday, it poured down rain.

CUSTOMER: My son was born December 17th, 2003.

ORLANDO: Born on a Wednesday.

CUSTOMER: Correct.

HAIRDRESSER: You know what, though, you will always be remembered because of what you remember.

LIAM BARTLETT: These spectacular, unlearned abilities have inspired scientists to explore how fertile our brains really are. They want to know what skills are programmed into us at birth.

DAROLD: Orlando knows how to calendar-calculate, but he never learned how to do that. Well, how is it possible that we could know things we never learned? Well the only way that that’s possible is that it is genetically endowed. It’s interesting, in the animal kingdom we think – we don’t think anything of that, the fact that certain butterflies for example can make a 3,000 mile trip, never having made the trip before, right on time, and they obviously inherited that from their ancestors.

LIAM BARTLETT: Are you saying that we’re all born brilliant – that we inherit skills we never use?

DAROLD: I’m saying that this dormant potential is there, and that we come with a whole host of installed software. The brain comes fully loaded, and we only use a portion of that.

LIAM BARTLETT: But excellence in one particular area of the brain can come at a cost. Tony is possessed with music – it even fills his dreams, as if a radio is constantly playing in his brain. It can become a torture, and his obsession led to his wife leaving him. He now plays alone in a big country house.

TONY: I’ve given up trying to understand where it comes from, and when it comes I try to just receive it and not ask too many questions.

LIAM BARTLETT: Relax, have a cup of tea and enjoy the view?

TONY: Yeah. Enjoy it, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: Among the many mysteries of this phenomena is how the brain can accommodate disability and genius in the one person. Alonzo, how much will the horse take? All of that. You’ll use all of that?


LIAM BARTLETT: Great. Alonzo Clemens can’t read, write, or form a sentence, but his dexterity with clay is amazing. We took him to a farm near his home in Boulder Colorado, where he took one mental snapshot of a horse, then without looking up, crafted a flawless copy of the animal in just half an hour. You don’t need to look at the horse again, do you?


LIAM BARTLETT: All in your head. Is that it?

ALONZO: That’s it.

LIAM BARTLETT: Finished. That is incredible. The detail in that head is just so accurate.


NANCY: They’re alive. They look alive. And his ability to imbue that sense of spirit and liveliness into these sculptures that he does, I think, is a particularly wonderful quality of his art.

LIAM BARTLETT: Michelangelo eat your heart out.

NANCY: Yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: Shall we put the latest masterpiece in the collection? Because there’s a fair few things here.

LIAM BARTLETT: Alonzo’s carer, Nancy Mason, says he had a serious fall on his head when he was a toddler, which triggered his insatiable talent.

NANCY: He had to model, he had to work materials, and began sculpting with them. He found whatever he could find around the house. His mother said he used to use shortening and do sculpture with shortening.

LIAM BARTLETT: Anything that was tactile and could be moulded.

NANCY: Anything that he could manipulate with his hands in that way he became very attracted to.

LIAM BARTLETT: Even now, Alonzo carries bags of clay wherever he goes, in case the urge overcomes him. He works at the YMCA, and when his shift is over, he exercises those gifted hands, getting ready to head home and sculpt some more.

DAROLD: The good news is that, by what I call training the talent, that is allowing Alonzo to sculpt the way he does, and as much as he does, his language has improved, his socialisation has improved, and so the savant skills can actually be what I call a conduit toward growth.

LIAM BARTLETT: Tony Cicoria’s talent just keeps growing too. He recently began composing music, and he turned the notes flooding his brain into this masterpiece. So you’ve composed that piece of music now?

TONY: I have.

LIAM BARTLETT: What do you call it?

TONY: It’s called Fantasy, Opus 1, and the subtitle is The Lightning Sonata. So that’s the way it ended up.

TONY: I’m an example of somebody that has been able to access something he didn’t have before. You know, it took a few million volts across the head to do it, and certainly I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone, but there must be a way to repeat the same process in other people.

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