It’s a fascinating paradox: people with severe mental disabilities sometimes display extraordinary abilities that mount to genius level. To give an example from Dr. Darold Treffert’s studies, Leslie is blind with an IQ below 50. With no training in music, the first time in his teens he heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, “he played it back flawlessly and without hesitation. He can do the same with any other piece of music, no matter how long or complex.” Yet he’s unable to feed himself with fork or spoon and has virtually no capacity for the simplest conversation with another person.
I’ve been tracking stories of people with severe mental disabilities that display prodigious talents in music, in art, in mathematics, and in staggering feats of memory. The mystery of course is how to explain these islands of genius bursting out of individuals otherwise so functionally retarded.
As it turns out, other domains of experience point to the same paradox. Here then is a short list of domains that reveal a link between genius of some sort and mental defect.
The idea I want to put before you flies in the face of commonsense. Confronted with loss, deprivation, total defeat--even death—at such junctures, when all seems lost, we may be closer than ever to contact with something altogether surprising and possibly quite wondrous. In short, being forced to the edge, being backed up against the wall, may be the necessary condition that leads to the leap of transcendence one has been waiting to take.
So let me spell out a few highlights, feathers in the head-dress of our transcendent ambition. One way that our sleeping genius within may be awakened is by vigorously cracking our skulls on something seriously nasty like granite. This we might have guessed from our premise. Children whose brains have been damaged at birth sometimes, very rarely, exhibit savant syndrome. As a matter of fact, there are cases of normal people who receive head injuries, after which some new talent spontaneously emerges. Such was the case of R.B. Amato who dove into a swimming pool and cracked his skull on a cement barrier he failed to see. When Amato fully recovered he became obsessed by music and found he could play the piano, which totally transformed his life.
Accidents in the course of life that seem brutally disruptive may also liberate us in ways we could never have predicted. There are case histories in which head injuries lead to personality transformations and the unleashing of unknown talents. Consistent with the examples of genetic and accidental brain deficit, the third domain also entails an assault on the normal function of the brain. But it’s done in a friendly way via the ingestion of psychoactive substances, THC, LSD, MDMA, etc., etc.. We know that psychoactive substances play a large and interesting part of religious history.
In fact, speaking of religious history, we have ample testimony and reportage showing that people at all stages of human history have engaged in practices that were built around the paradox that mental disability is somehow linked to genius.
Two examples come to mind: one is to willfully disable the rational mind by abolishing all doubt and hesitation. The other is also clear: ascetic practice. The inspired saint, yogi, shaman is apt to discipline his or her body, starve, punish it with the aim of creating a new body. The most ruthless tyranny is inflicted on the mind, emptying the mind of all thoughts that compete with and distract from the Supreme Goal. Killing the ego and the rational mind is the necessary prelude to enlightenment.
Now from religious history we can step into the contemporary near-death experience. Once again we confront the weird dialectic of disrupting all the normal mental functions, which results in extraordinary transformations of life and consciousness. When our normal mental abilities are in abeyance, the hidden agents of our creative selves spring into action.
Next, we spend a part of our lives in dream space. In dream space our normal mental functions are disabled. Our sense of self is diminished; our perceptions are wildly irregular. In fact, our dream world is compounded of nightmares, insanities, and epiphanies of every stripe. Yet we know that glimpses of heaven and flashes of genius and inspiration sometimes occur in dreams. I mentioned insanities; let me underscore the ancient notion that links genius with insanity. Many a genius has been deemed a lunatic. So madness is yet another domain to add to our list.
Different examples illustrate the paradox connecting genius with mental disability. The connection holds whether the disability is genetically or accidentally caused, or whether the disabling is deliberate and consciously induced. The creative wellspring is democratically open to anybody who falls into the right state of receptivity and the right need and motivation.
We have little insight into how and why this happens. It seems especially odd to consider how blind and mentally disabled people manage to connect with the higher sources of creativity. One explanation is that the savant is compensating for this disabilities, but the question still is, How does he do it?
I might say something like this. If you’re blind and if your language and communication skills are impaired, you have fewer things to distract you from focusing on what you’re aiming for. What yogis and creative people in general have to do is get very focused on the tasks that engage them. No easy matter as most of us know from experience. For a blind or deaf disabled savant, however, the powers of concentration must be tremendous; that may be a clue to how their performances reach so far into what looks impossible.
Our waking attention is monopolized by our bodily needs and mental obsessions. There has to be some disruption of the routine habits of our mental life before the greater reality opens up to us. When it does it adds a dimension of transcendence to our lives. What we do with it is up to us.
I have a hunch that the one who runs the mystery show of existence likes to play games with us. The game may in fact be a doorway to a radically new perspective on our story. See my book, Smile of the Universe: Miracles in an Age of Disbelief (Amazon) for many examples of the phenomena we're discussing.