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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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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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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.
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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
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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