A Fortunate Accident?
Following the story of the savant George Widener, whose incredible skills result from brain damage at birth, we consider the evidence that accidental brain damage can trigger the release of hidden talents much later in life. One such case is Tommy McHugh. Until five years ago, this Liverpudlian builder had never picked up an artist’s brush but, ever since a near-fatal brain injury Tommy has been consumed by a powerful compulsion to paint.
One morning, Tommy was sitting on the toilet when he was rudely interrupted. A knock at the door prompted him to try too hard to evacuate his bowel resulting in a sudden increase in blood pressure that caused two arteries to rupture in his brain, one on either side haemorrhaging a large quantity of blood.
Surgeons worked quickly to save Tommy’s life. They inserted a wire coil to plug the leak on the right side of his brain and applied a metal clip to the left to prevent further injury.
When he was released from hospital, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t eat, he didn’t know that he needed to eat. Once he started to walk, his head became full of notions, things he wanted to say, things he wanted to get out, so he began writing poetry – obsessively. He recalls: “The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write, it was like a drug”. But, Tommy’s poetry was just a prelude to his madness to come.
Tommy’s wife, Jan, was in the kitchen when she got her next shock. Tommy was drawing hundreds of alien-like faces all with screaming, agape mouths. This was his inner torment being expressed.
Tommy’s artistic mania has threatened to overtake his surroundings and no-one can accuse him of not making the most of the available space. He has paintings in every room, on every surface, even the ceilings. His talent might fall short of Michelangelo’s but he makes up for it with his manic drive. It was this drive that, ultimately, became too much for Jan.
It all came to a head when Jan, a houseproud woman, realised that the house was filling with smoke. She went upstairs to investigate and found Tommy melting wax candles, blackening himself, the room and the house. Tommy’s response was “You don’t know who I am, do you?”.
What had happened to Tommy McHugh? Nobody seemed to know. Alone and desperate, he sent off nearly sixty cries for help, written in rhyme, to doctors around the world. Unknown to Tommy, nearly 3,000 miles away, a Harvard neurologist would understand exactly what Tommy was going through.
Alice Flaherty, a leading expert on the effects of brain injury on behaviour, had discovered from first-hand experience how unpredictable the brain can be. She had suffered the still-birth of her twins after a complicated and traumatic pregnancy. She immediately felt very sad at her loss but, after about ten days she was overcome with the compulsion to write everything down. She believes that the traumatic birth led to a biochemical change in her brain that resulted in her manic compulsion to write.
Alice turned to psychiatric drugs for help. Eventually, she found the ones that curbed her mania. As word of her experience spread, writers and artists with similar conditions started flocking to her door.
Luckily for Tommy McHugh, one of the dozens of letters he’d sent off landed on Alice Flaherty’s desk. She immediately understood, and felt a bond with Tommy. She wanted to meet Tommy as she believed she could help him better understand what had happened to his brain.
Tommy has a criminal record which prevents him entering The United States, but touched by his letters Alice travelled to England for their first ever meeting. To Alice, the full spectacle of Tommy’s mania isn’t so unfamiliar. The Harvard neurologist quickly finds herself becoming immersed in Tommy’s strange world.
In anticipation of Alice’s visit, Tommy has asked his surgeon for his medical records to show her. After studying his scans, Alice believes that the bleed from Tommy’s aneurysm produced his overwhelming urge to create by putting pressure on two critical areas of his brain; the frontal lobe which generates ideas and the temporal lobe which controls their orderly release into the world. In Tommy’s brain the delicate balance these two areas has been upset causing a manic outpouring of ideas. Alice explains: “This balance is now unstable in him and gives mood fluctuations, gives creativity, gives suffering and sometimes it’s hard to tease them apart. Typically, when someone has a big burst of output after a tragedy, it will die away. With Tommy it’s still going strong after five years and I don’t think this is ever going to stop”.
For Tommy his horror story has a happy ending. He acquired his savant like ability through a near fatal trauma but he is, in his own slightly-crazy way, content.
CREDITS: The above information came from the UK Channel 5 “My Brilliant Brain” documentary series.
Neurosurgical Management of Aneurysmal Subarachnoid Haemorrhage
Blood-Brain Barrier Permeability Changes After Subarachnoid Haemorrhage