Can horses fly? In 1994 Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning in a New York park. The bolt passed through Cicoria’s brain but rather than kill him, it left the orthopaedic surgeon with an irresistible desire to play piano. Cicoria began by playing other people’s music, but soon was writing melodies of his own. Today, he is a celebrated composer. In the late 80s, a stroke left chiropractor Jon Sarkin with the inexplicable ability to paint elaborate drawings filled with words and images. Today, they sell for tens of thousands of pounds. In 2002, college dropout Jason Padgett lost consciousness when he was mugged outside a bar in Washington state. He woke to a world overlaid with geometric shapes. Padgett became obsessed with mathematics and is now renowned for his complex drawings of geometric patterns.
From where does genius derive? The Ancient Greeks believed that it came from the gods. Freud thought ingenuity rose from the sublimation of sexual desires. Eureka moments, said Tchaikovsky, were the results of perfect technical knowledge. Kant insisted original thoughts were the mark of true genius. “We of the craft are all crazy,” wrote Lord Byron. “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” Plato, too, believed that genius was the result of what he called “divine madness”. Mounting evidence suggests he may have been on to something.
People suffering with autism, and various other mental illnesses, are more sensitive to perceived subconscious threats, say psychologists. The sounding of an internal panic alarm is thought to connect typically separate parts of the brain, which begin bouncing ideas off each other (the notion that you are either a left-brain thinker or a right-brain thinker is a myth). LSD is thought to have a similar effect.
It’s been speculated that Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Darwin, Tolstoy and Michelangelo were all ‘on the spectrum.’ Beethoven was bipolar. Hemingway, Woolf, Plath and van Gogh all took their own lives. Picasso had strabismus, an abnormal alignment of the eyes, meaning he couldn’t perceive depth, a disorder that apparently helped him produce his ground-breaking two-dimensional representations. Picasso’s splintered perspectives earned him a reputation as a creative genius, yet his personality traits fuelled debate on whether an artist’s personal conduct should affect our perception of their art. Reading about the relationship he shared with his muses might help inform your own opinion (p.54).
Back to Cicoria. When the brain is injured – such as when it is struck by lightning – dying cells leak serotonin, another cause for autonomous parts of our brain to become connected. This may explain why bookseller Eadweard Muybridge, after cracking his head on a boulder, invented what he called the zoopraxiscope in 1879 in order to prove that horses fly. By projecting several photographic images in quick succession, Muybridge was able to mimic motion, and show that all of a horse’s hooves momentarily leave the ground when they gallop.
What science can’t explain, is why after making the world’s first movie, Muybridge used his earth-shattering invention to film himself swinging a pickaxe naked.