Sarkin in Popular Science

When Brain Damage Unlocks The Genius Within

Brain damage has unleashed extraordinary talents in a small group of otherwise ordinary individuals. Will science find a way for everyone to tap their inner virtuoso?
By Adam Piore Posted 02.19.2013 at 10:00 am 14 Comments


The Genius Within Paul Lachine and Graham Murdoch

Derek Amato stood above the shallow end of the swimming pool and called for his buddy in the Jacuzzi to toss him the football. Then he launched himself through the air, head first, arms outstretched. He figured he could roll onto one shoulder as he snagged the ball, then slide across the water. It was a grave miscalculation. The tips of Amato’s fingers brushed the pigskin—then his head slammed into the pool’s concrete floor with such bone-jarring force that it felt like an explosion. He pushed to the surface, clapping his hands to his head, convinced that the water streaming down his cheeks was blood gushing from his ears.

At the edge of the pool, Amato collapsed into the arms of his friends, Bill Peterson and Rick Sturm. It was 2006, and the 39-year-old sales trainer was visiting his hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from Colorado, where he lived. As his two high-school buddies drove Amato to his mother’s home, he drifted in and out of consciousness, insisting that he was a professional baseball player late for spring training in Phoenix. Amato’s mother rushed him to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed Amato with a severe concussion. They sent him home with instructions to be woken every few hours.

It would be weeks before the full impact of Amato’s head trauma became apparent: 35 percent hearing loss in one ear, headaches, memory loss. But the most dramatic consequence appeared just four days after his accident. Amato awoke hazy after near-continuous sleep and headed over to Sturm’s house. As the two pals sat chatting in Sturm’s makeshift music studio, Amato spotted a cheap electric keyboard.

Without thinking, he rose from his chair and sat in front of it. He had never played the piano—never had the slightest inclination to. Now his fingers seemed to find the keys by instinct and, to his astonishment, ripple across them. His right hand started low, climbing in lyrical chains of triads, skipping across melodic intervals and arpeggios, landing on the high notes, then starting low again and building back up. His left hand followed close behind, laying down bass, picking out harmony. Amato sped up, slowed down, let pensive tones hang in the air, then resolved them into rich chords as if he had been playing for years. When Amato finally looked up, Sturm’s eyes were filled with tears.

Music Man

Music Man: An accident left Derek Amato with a severe concussion and a surprising ability to play the piano. One theory is that his brain reorganized, making accessible existing memories of music. Another is that his brain no longer filters sensory input, enabling him to hear individual notes rather than melodies.  Courtesy Derek Amato

Amato played for six hours, leaving Sturm’s house early the next morning with an unshakable feeling of wonder. He searched the Internet for an explanation, typing in words like gifted and head trauma. The results astonished him.

Amato searched the internet for an explanation, typing in words like gifted and head trauma. the results astonished him.
He read about Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon in upstate New York who was struck by lightning while talking to his mother from a telephone booth. Cicoria then became obsessed with classical piano and taught himself how to play and compose music. After being hit in the head with a baseball at age 10, Orlando Serrell could name the day of the week for any given date. A bad fall at age three left Alonzo Clemons with permanent cognitive impairment, Amato learned, and a talent for sculpting intricate replicas of animals.

Finally Amato found the name Darold Treffert, a world-recognized expert on savant syndrome—a condition in which individuals who are typically mentally impaired demonstrate remarkable skills. Amato fired off an e-mail; soon he had answers. Treffert, now retired from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, diagnosed Amato with “acquired savant syndrome.” In the 30 or so known cases, ordinary people who suffer brain trauma suddenly develop almost-superhuman new abilities: artistic brilliance, mathematical mastery, photographic memory. One acquired savant, a high-school dropout brutally beaten by muggers, is the only known person in the world able to draw complex geometric patterns called fractals; he also claims to have discovered a mistake in pi. A stroke transformed another from a mild-mannered chiropractor into a celebrated visual artist whose work has appeared in publications like The New Yorker and in gallery shows, and sells for thousands of dollars.

The neurological causes of acquired savant syndrome are poorly understood. But the Internet has made it easier for people like Amato to connect with researchers who study savants, and improved brain-imaging techniques have enabled those scientists to begin to probe the unique neural mechanisms at work. Some have even begun to design experiments that investigate an intriguing possibility: genius lies in all of us, just waiting to be unleashed.

* * *

Pure Genius

Pure Genius:  Paul Lachine and Graham Murdoch

Bruce Miller directs the UCSF Memory and Aging Center in San Francisco, where as a behavioral neurologist he treats elderly people stricken with Alzheimer’s disease and late-life psychosis. One day in the mid-1990s, the son of a patient pointed out his father’s new obsession with painting. As his father’s symptoms worsened, the man said, his paintings improved. Soon, Miller began to identify other patients who displayed unexpected new talents as their neurological degeneration continued. As dementia laid waste to brain regions associated with language, higher-order processing, and social norms, their artistic abilities exploded.

Though these symptoms defied conventional wisdom on brain disease in the elderly—artists afflicted with Alzheimer’s typically lose artistic ability—Miller realized they were consistent with another population described in the literature: savants. That wasn’t the only similarity. Savants often display an obsessive compulsion to perform their special skill, and they exhibit deficits in social and language behaviors, defects present in dementia patients. Miller wondered if there might be neurological similarities too. Although the exact mechanisms at work in the brains of savants have never been identified and can vary from case to case, several studies dating back to at least the 1970s have found left-hemispheric damage in autistic savants with prodigious artistic, mathematical, and memory skills.

Sudden Sculptor

Sudden Sculptor : After suffering a head injury as a toddler, Alonzo Clemons began to spontaneously sculpt animals with incredible accuracy and speed.  Courtesy Nancy Mason/Gifted Hands

Miller decided to find out precisely where in the left hemisphere of regular savants—whose skills usually become apparent at a very young age—these defects existed. He read the brain scan of a five-year-old autistic savant able to reproduce intricate scenes from memory on an Etch-a-Sketch. Single-photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT) showed abnormal inactivity in the anterior temporal lobes of the left hemisphere—exactly the results he found in his dementia patients.

In most cases, scientists attribute enhanced brain activity to neuroplasticity, the organ’s ability to devote more cortical real estate to developing skills as they improve with practice. But Miller offered a wholly different hypothesis for the mechanisms at work in congenital and acquired savants. Savant skills, Miller argues, emerge because the areas ravaged by disease—those associated with logic, verbal communication, and comprehension—have actually been inhibiting latent artistic abilities present in those people all along. As the left brain goes dark, the circuits keeping the right brain in check disappear. The skills do not emerge as a result of newly acquired brain power; they emerge because for the first time, the areas of the right brain associated with creativity can operate unchecked.

Full Spectrum

Full Spectrum: Savant skills lie on a spectrum of ability; Clemons is considered the rare prodigious savant—one whose talent would be exceptional even for a person not impaired in any way.  Courtesy Nancy Mason/Gifted Hands

The theory fits with the work of other neurologists, who are increasingly finding cases in which brain damage has spontaneously, and seemingly counterintuitively, led to positive changes—eliminating stuttering, enhancing memory in monkeys and rats, even restoring lost eyesight in animals. In a healthy brain, the ability of different neural circuits to both excite and inhibit one another plays a critical role in efficient function. But in the brains of dementia patients and some autistic savants, the lack of inhibition in areas associated with creativity led to keen artistic expression and an almost compulsive urge to create.

* * *
In the weeks after his accident, Amato’s mind raced. And his fingers wanted to move. He found himself tapping out patterns, waking up from naps with his fingers drumming against his legs. He bought a keyboard. Without one, he felt anxious, overstimulated; once he was able to sit down and play, relief washed over him, followed by a deep sense of calm. He’d shut himself in, sometimes for as long as two to three days, just him and the piano, exploring his new talent, trying to understand it, letting the music pour out of him.

Amato experienced other symptoms, many of them not good. Black and white squares appeared in his vision, as if a transparent filter had synthesized before his eyes, and moved in a circular pattern. He was also plagued with headaches. The first one hit three weeks after his accident, but soon Amato was having as many as five a day. They made his head pound, and light and noise were excruciating. One day, he collapsed in his brother’s bathroom. On another, he almost passed out in Wal-Mart.

Still, Amato’s feelings were unambiguous. He felt certain he had been given a gift, and it wasn’t just the personal gratification of music: Amato’s new condition, he quickly realized, had vast commercial potential.

Tortured Artist

Tortured Artist: Jon Sarkin says he saw things differently, more vividly­­, after suffering a brain hemorrhage and a stroke. And while the chiropractor had always dabbled in art, he suddenly became obsessed with creating it.  Liam King

Cultural fascination with savants appears to date as far back as the condition itself. In the 19th century, “Blind Tom” Bethune became an international celebrity. A former slave who could reproduce any song on the piano, he played the White House at age 11, toured the world at 16, and over the course of his life earned well over $750,000—a fortune at the time. Dustin Hoffman introduced the savant to millions of theatergoers with his character in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Since then, prodigious savants have become staples of shows like 60 Minutes and Oprah. But acquired savants, especially, are perfect fodder for a society obsessed with self-improvement, reality television, and pop psychology.

Acquired savants are perfect fodder for a society obsessed with self-improvement, reality television, and pop psychology.
Jon Sarkin, the chiropractor turned artist, became the subject of profiles in GQ and Vanity Fair, a biography, and TV documentaries. Tom Cruise purchased the rights to his life story. “To be honest, I don’t even mention it to my wife anymore when the media calls,” Sarkin says. “It’s part of life.” Jason Padgett, the savant who can draw fractals, inked a book deal after he was featured on Nightline and in magazine and newspaper articles. Reached by phone, he complained that his agent no longer allowed him to give interviews. “It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I want to speak to you, but they won’t let me.”

To Amato, acquired savantism looked like the opportunity he’d been waiting for his entire life. Amato’s mother had always told him he was extraordinary, that he was put on the planet to do great things. Yet a series of uninspiring jobs had followed high school—selling cars, delivering mail, doing public relations. He’d reached for the brass ring, to be sure, but it had always eluded him. He’d auditioned for the television show American Gladiators and failed the pull-up test. He’d opened a sports-management company, handling marketing and endorsements for mixed-martial-arts fighters; it went bust in 2001. Now he had a new path.

From Chiropractor To Painter

From Chiropractor To Painter: “Eight years ago, I didn’t draw for a while and I found out what happened,” Sarkin says. “I had a nervous breakdown. And I have been drawing pretty much constantly ever since.”  Liam King

Amato began planning a marketing campaign. He wanted to be more than an artist, musician, and performer. He wanted to tell his story and inspire people. Amato also had another ambition, a goal lingering from his life before virtuosity, back when he had only his competitive drive. He wanted, more than anything, to be on Survivor. So when that first interviewer called from a local radio station, Amato was ready to talk.

* * *
Few people have followed the emergence of acquired savants with more interest than Allan Snyder, a neuroscientist at the University of Sydney in Australia. Since 1999, Snyder has focused his research on studying how their brains function. He’s also pressed further into speculative territory than most neuroscientists feel comfortable: He is attempting to produce the same outstanding abilities in people with undamaged brains.

Last spring, Snyder published what many consider to be his most substantive work. He and his colleagues gave 28 volunteers a geometric puzzle that has stumped laboratory subjects for more than 50 years. The challenge: Connect nine dots, arrayed in three rows of three, using four straight lines without retracing a line or lifting the pen. None of the subjects could solve the problem. Then Snyder and his colleagues used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to temporarily immobilize the same area of the brain destroyed by dementia in Miller’s acquired savants. The noninvasive technique, which is commonly used to evaluate brain damage in stroke patients, delivers a weak electrical current to the scalp through electrodes, depolarizing or hyperpolarizing neural circuits until they have slowed to a crawl. After tDCS, more than 40 percent of the participants in Snyder’s experiment solved the problem. (None of those in a control group given placebo tDCS identified the solution.)

Sarkin's Art

Sarkin’s Art:  Liam King

The experiment, Snyder argues, supports the hypothesis that the abilities observed in acquired savants emerge once brain areas normally held in check have become unfettered. The crucial role of the left temporal lobe, he believes, is to filter what would otherwise be a dizzying flood of sensory stimuli, sorting them into previously learned concepts. These concepts, or what Snyder calls mind-sets, allow humans to see a tree instead of all its individual leaves and to recognize words instead of just the letters. “How could we possibly deal with the world if we had to analyze, to completely fathom, every new snapshot?” he says.

Savants can access raw sensory information, normally off-limits to the conscious mind, because the brain’s perceptual region isn’t functioning. To solve the nine-dot puzzle, one must extend the lines beyond the square formed by the dots, which requires casting aside preconceived notions of the parameters. “Our whole brain is geared to making predictions so we can function rapidly in this world,” Snyder says. “If something naturally helps you get around the filters of these mind-sets, that is pretty powerful.”

Sudden Savant

Sudden Savant:  Paul Lachine and Graham Murdoch

Treffert, for one, finds the results of the experiment compelling. “I was a little dubious of Snyder’s earlier work, which often involved asking his subjects to draw pictures,” he says. “It just seemed pretty subjective: How do you evaluate the change in them? But his recent study is useful.”

Snyder thinks Amato’s musical prodigy adds to mounting evidence that untapped human potential lies in everyone, accessible with the right tools. When the non-musician hears music, he perceives the big picture, melodies. Amato, Snyder says, has a “literal” experience of music—he hears individual notes. Miller’s dementia patients have technical artistic skill because they are drawing what they see: details.

Berit Brogaard believes the left-brain, right-brain idea is an oversimplification. Brogaard is a neuroscientist and philosophy professor at the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She has another theory: When brain cells die, they release a barrage of neurotransmitters, and this deluge of potent chemicals may actually rewire parts of the brain, opening up new neural pathways into areas previously unavailable.

“Our hypothesis is that we have abilities that we cannot access,” Brogaard says. “Because they are not conscious to us, we cannot manipulate them. Some reorganization takes place that makes it possible to consciously access information that was there, lying dormant.”

In August, Brogaard published a paper exploring the implications of a battery of tests her lab ran on Jason Padgett. It revealed damage in the visual-cortex areas involved in detecting motion and boundaries. Areas of the parietal cortex associated with novel visual images, mathematics, and action planning were abnormally active. In Padgett’s case, she says, the areas that have become supercharged are next to those that sustained the damage—placing them in the path of the neurotransmitters likely unleashed by the death of so many brain cells.

In Amato’s case, she says, he learned bar chords on a guitar in high school and even played in a garage band. “Obviously he had some interest in music before, and his brain probably recoded some music unconsciously,” she says. “He stored memories of music in his brain, but he didn’t access them.” Somehow the accident provoked a reorganization of neurons that brought them into his conscious mind, Brogaard speculates. It’s a theory she hopes to explore with him in the lab.

* * *
On a beautiful Los Angeles day last October, I accompanied Amato and his agent, Melody Pinkerton, up to the penthouse roof deck of Santa Monica’s Shangri-La Hotel. Far below us, a pier jutted into the ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway hugged the coastline. Pinkerton settled next to Amato on a couch, nodding warmly and blinking at him with a doe-eyed smile as three men with handheld cameras circled. They were gathering footage for the pilot of a reality-TV series about women trying to make it in Hollywood. Pinkerton is a former contestant on the VH1 reality show Frank the Entertainer and has posed for Playboy; if the series is green-lit, Amato will make regular appearances as one of her clients.

“My whole life has changed,” Amato told her. “I’ve slowed down, even though I’m racing and producing at a pace that not many people understand, you know? If Beethoven scored 500 songs a year back in the day and was considered a pretty brilliant mind, and the doctors tell me I’m scoring 2,500 pieces a year, you can see that I’m a little busy.”

Amato seemed comfortable with the cameras, despite the pressure. A spot on a reality show would represent a step forward in his career, but not a huge leap. Over the past six years, Amato has been featured in newspapers and television shows around the world. He was one of eight savants featured on a Discovery Channel special in 2010 called Ingenious Minds, and he was on PBS’s NOVA this fall. He recently appeared on a talk show hosted by his idol, Jeff Probst, also the host of Survivor. In June, Amato appeared on the Today show.

Many savants exhibit exquisite computational or artistic capacities, but almost always at the expense of other things the brain does.
Musical renown (and a payday) has yet to follow. He released his first album in 2007. In 2008, he played in front of several thousand people in New Orleans with the famed jazz-fusion guitarist Stanley Jordan. He was asked to write the score for an independent Japanese documentary. But while Amato’s musical prowess never fails to elicit amazement in the media, reviews of his music are mixed. “Some of the reaction is good, some of it’s fair, some of it’s not so good,” he says. “I wouldn’t say any of it’s great. What I think’s going to be great is working with other musicians now.”

Still, as we strolled down Santa Monica Boulevard to a sushi restaurant after the filming, he hardly could have seemed happier. At the table, Amato smiled broadly, gestured manically with meaty forearms tattooed with musical notes, and poked the air with his chopsticks for emphasis.

“There’s book stuff, there are appearances, performances, charity organizations,” he said. “There are TV people, film people, commercial people, background stuff. Shoot, I know I missed about another half dozen. It’s like I’m on a plane doing about 972 miles an hour! I’m enjoying every second of the ride!”

Amato hasn’t exactly been coy about his desire for fame, mailing packets of material to reporters, sending Facebook requests to fellow acquired savants, and continuously updating his fan page—behavior that has raised some doubts among experts.

Rex Jung, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, grew suspicious of Amato after reading about his history as an ultimate-fight promoter. “I couldn’t be more skeptical,” he says. Jung studies creativity and traumatic brain injuries, and he has spent time with Alonzo Clemons, the savant who sculpts animals. He believes acquired savantism is a legitimate condition. But he notes Amato does not display other symptoms one would expect.

Many savants, Jung says, exhibit “exquisite” computational or artistic capacities, but “almost always at the expense of other things the brain does.” Clemons, for example, has severe developmental disabilities. “I am highly skeptical of savants that are able to tie their shoes and update their Facebook pages and do strong marketing campaigns to highlight their savant abilities all at the same time.”

Overnight Artist

Overnight Artist:  Paul Lachine and Graham Murdoch

There is no way to definitively prove or disprove Amato’s claims, but a number of credible scientists are willing to vouch for his authenticity. Andrew Reeves, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, conducted MRI scans of Amato’s brain for Ingenious Minds. The tests revealed several white spots, which Reeves acknowledges could have been caused by previous concussions.

“We knew going in that it was unlikely to show any sort of signature change,” Reeves says. But Amato’s description of what he experiences “fits too well with how the brain is wired, in terms of what parts are adjacent to what parts, for him to have concocted it, in my opinion.” Reeves believes the black and white squares in Amato’s field of vision somehow connect to his motor system, indicating an atypical link between the visual and auditory regions of his brain.

As I drove through the streets of L.A. with Amato last fall, it seemed to me that there was something undeniably American about his efforts to seize on his accident—which struck when he was close to 40, staring into the abyss of middle-age mediocrity—and transform himself from an anonymous sales trainer into a commercial product, an inspirational symbol of human possibility for the legions of potential fans dreaming of grander things. Treffert, Snyder, and Brogaard all spoke enthusiastically about unraveling the phenomenon of acquired savantism, in order to one day enable everyone to explore their hidden talents. The Derek Amatos of the world provide a glimpse of that goal.

After parking on Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks from the storied rock-and-roll shrines of the Roxy and the Viper Room, Amato and I headed into the Standard Hotel and followed a bedraggled hipster with an Australian accent through the lobby to a dimly lit bar. In the center of the room sat a grand piano, its ivory keys gleaming. The chairs had been flipped upside down on the tables, and dishes clinked in a nearby kitchen. The club, closed to customers, was all ours. As Amato sat down, the tension seemed to drain from his shoulders.

He closed his eyes, placed his foot on one of the pedals, and began to play. The music that gushed forth was loungy, full of flowery trills, swelling and sweeping up and down the keys in waves of cascading notes—a sticky, emotional kind of music more appropriate for the romantic climax of a movie like From Here to Eternity than a gloomy nightclub down the street from the heart of the Sunset Strip. It seemed strangely out of character for a man whose sartorial choices bring to mind ’80s hair-band icon Bret Michaels. Amato didn’t strike me as prodigious, the kind of rare savant, like Blind Tom Bethune, whose skills would be impressive even in someone with years of training.

But it didn’t seem to matter. There was expression, melody, and skill. And if they could emerge spontaneously in Amato, who’s to say what spectacular abilities might lie dormant in the rest of us?

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of the magazine.


Sarkin at Oxford

Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience

2nd – 31st March

03 Gallery, Oxford Castle, Oxford

The House We Live In - 2012 - Jon Sarkin (1)

Check out the original article on Insight Magazine

If you’re looking for something that will get your brain going this year, save the date for this intriguing exhibition at the 03 Gallery in Oxford. Set up by the AXNS Collective, this exploration of art, creativity and neurological disease will most definitely give you some food for thought!

Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience is an exhibition that has been put together to explore various forms of art that are related to neurological disease, creativity and the neural basis of visual perception. It features the works of artists who have been affected by neurological conditions alongside displays of contemporary art that has been inspired by discoveries in neuroscience.

There are 9 artists whose work features in this exhibition, each of them having suffered from a neurological condition that has affected their work and the way they see the world. As an accompaniment, there is also a series of talks that show the artists in conversation with neuroscientists and psychologists who have specialist knowledge of their experiences.

The AXNS Collective, the group which has organised and curated the exhibition, is currently fundraising for the production of a catalogue to commemorate the event. As a registered Community Interest Company, the collective will donate all profits made from the sales of this catalogue to the charity Headway, a fantastic organisation that that provides art therapy groups across the country for people with brain injuries.

If you would like to donate to this worthy cause, visit and follow the link to their Crowd Funder page.

Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Wates Foundation, and is supported by the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford.


Line by Line


Jon Sarkin works on a painting while David Patterson plays guitar during a Sept. 23 performance at the Spaulding R. Aldrich Gallery at Alternatives’ Whitin Mill.

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NORTHBRIDGE —  Artist Jon Sarkin stands silently before the blank canvas. Barefoot, in paint-splashed jeans and a sweatshirt, he surveys the multicolored acrylic dollops on a small table beside him. Suddenly, classical guitarist David Patterson begins to play the first mysterious twangs of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Prelude No. 4,” and Mr. Sarkin picks up his brush.

“My back will be to the audience and I’ll try not to have them influence a whole lot of what I’m doing,” Mr. Sarkin said during a private reception about an hour prior to the performance. “But there’s going to be part of my brain that knows there’s an audience watching what I’m doing. (As for) how it influences what I’m going to do — I don’t know. I enjoy the feeling of not knowing.”

The performance Sept. 23 was part of “Line by Line”— an ongoing exhibition of Mr. Sarkin’s work at the Spaulding R. Aldrich Gallery at Alternatives’ Whitin Mill in Whitinsville. Alternatives, an agency with 55 locations around Central Massachusetts, seeks to improve the lives of people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities by helping them find valued roles in the community. As part of its mission, Alternatives seeks to break down barriers between the people they serve and the general public.

“We have found that cultural activities are where people are most likely to drop their guard,” said Alternatives’ Director of Community Outreach Tom Saupe, who said the Sarkin exhibition, which runs through Nov. 16, had been very successful. “You go to a jazz concert and you assume the person sitting next to you is there because they love jazz, too. You already have one point of contact. And relationships start that way.”

Largely for that reason, Alternatives now has, in addition to its art gallery, a theater, several artist studios, and a summer series of outdoor plays and concerts.

“It’s a giveback to the public to make a cultural center here in the Blackstone Valley, but also at the same time on the mission-driven side, it gives the opportunity for the public and the individuals we serve to come together in a joint venture,” Mr. Saupe said. “A cultural event that everybody, no matter what their ability, can enjoy.”

Mr. Sarkin’s work is especially suited to Alternatives’ mission, given his fascinating back story and rise to prominence in the art world. In 1989, Mr. Sarkin was a successful chiropractor with a wife and a young son. In August of that year, he suffered a stroke during brain surgery to treat tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. While recovering, he became overwhelmed by a compulsion to draw and he has, in the ensuing decades, become an internationally renowned artist.

“We were very excited to have him,” Mr. Saupe said. “Not only is the art of tremendous quality, but his story, with his own disability of actually having lost part of his cerebellum and brain damage and still being able to turn his life around and become a complete success is the sort of thing that we would like to provide, maybe on a slightly smaller scale, to the people that we serve.”

Alternatives’ Executive Director Dennis H. Rice agreed that Mr. Sarkin’s story can serve as inspiration for people dealing with disabilities.

“The people we serve have lots of challenges because of their disabilities,” he said. “And our job is, in some ways, to help them to develop a new life purpose, to get beyond the catastrophic effect of their disability. And clearly Jon has done this in a very profound way.”

Mr. Sarkin, 59, who lives in Gloucester, said he doesn’t think about those things. His attitude is, since he cannot control how people view him, it isn’t productive to worry about it. At the same time, everybody wants to succeed.

“There is something universal about human beings that when someone says, ‘You did a really good job,’ they like that,” he explained. “You did a really good job spelling ‘cat.’”

During the performance, Mr. Sarkin created two paintings in front of an audience of about 50 while Mr. Patterson breezed through a selection of classical pieces, in a set designed to allow visual art and music to share the stage. It’s an experiment the pair had tried before, when filmmaker Chris Peters captured their collaboration for a series of online shorts.

“He taped us working together, but there was no audience at all,” Mr. Sarkin said. “We did it and we thought, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ We thought it would be cool to do in front of a large audience.”

“Let’s say you’re working and the audience is like ‘This sucks,’” he explains. “(If) you feel the energy of that harsh negative judgment it’s going to influence your painting. As opposed to if the audience is thinking. ‘This is so cool,’ and you feel that energy.”

As a musician who has performed as a soloist and with orchestras for more than 20 years, Mr. Patterson — who splits his time between Boston and Asia — knows quite well the difficulties and thrills of playing before an audience. He also has a strong connection with Mr. Sarkin’s work and a conviction that art can be interdisciplinary.

“Jon is an incredibly spontaneous artist,” he said. “When we did this the first time with the video, even though it was planned out, we very much felt like we were collaborating, like in a band together. We felt like we were actually connected as we were doing it.”

Mr. Sarkin, who said he listens to music “incessantly” while he paints, agrees. He has worked closely with the Boston-bred alt-rock band Guster on numerous projects, including a similar live collaboration.

“(This is) very different because I’ve been more of an accompanist with Guster,” he said. “The show’s about Guster, and I’m just part of the show. This is a lot different, this is more equal billing.”

It is hard to say how the music and art informed one another. At the very least, the hour-and-30-minute-long performance gave the audience some insight into the mind of a gifted artist, with an intimate concert from a master guitarist thrown in for good measure. One thing I believe the entire audience can agree on: We’d love to see them do it again.

Mr. Sarkin, very focused, seemed to pay no attention to either the audience or the music. When Mr. Patterson took a short break, the only sound that filled the theater was the oddly hypnotic scratching of the paintbrush against the canvas.

Ironically, the best example of the art and music coming together occurred after Mr. Sarkin had finished painting. He stood, arms crossed with his back to the audience, silently evaluating his second completed painting of the performance. Mr. Patterson, meanwhile, sped furiously through the climactic final minutes of Carlo Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba.”

One artist was as still as can be while the other employed all his dexterity and talent to bring the song to its exhilarating peak. As the song ended and the audience erupted in applause, Mr. Sarkin glanced back, startled. A man pulled from his trance.

When asked whether he had a favorite piece, or if he was able to stop and admire his own work, Mr. Sarkin shrugged.
“Not too much,” he said. “That seems like a waste of time.”

For such a prolific artist, who in less than two hours could create two polished pieces that would hang proudly in any gallery, it may seem that way.

It is likely that by the time the audience swarmed the stage, craning to get a close look at the still-wet paintings, Mr. Sarkin had, in some way, already moved on to his next piece.


Today’s Chiropractic

Healing Art, Healing Hands

By Katie Brown


For chiropractors, working with their hands has become second nature. From palpating subluxations to correcting them, chiropractors must continously be in tune with a patient’s body through their hands. In essence, a chiropractor’s care can often be compared to a form of art, carefully and meticulously targeting specific areas with refinement in the hopes of creating a fully functioning body.

So with such well-trained and fine-tuned hands, it’s no wonder many chiropractors have begun using their hands in a new venue—art. From photography to painting to sculpting, artists find themselves pushing their limits and testing their creativity through a variety of techniques and mediums. While Chiropractic may have been their original profession, these chiropractor artists have combined their chiropractic background with inspiration and creativity to produce their own one-of-a-kind artwork.

Jon Sarkin, D.C.

Today, Jon Sarkin is a world-renowned artist. His life almost seems surreal—he’s had interviews featured in GQ and Vanity Fair magazines, a book about himself called “Shadows Bright as Glass” written by Pulitzer Prize-
winning author Amy Ellis Nut, art featured on the cover of the American alternative rock band Guster’s 2010 album “Easy Wonderful” and the rights to a screenplay about his life bought by Paramount Pictures.

While his art now consumes his life, Sarkin had to pay a high price to discover his artistic talent. In 1989, after undergoing surgery to help relieve the ringing in his ears from the tinnitus that he had developed the year earlier, Sarkin suffered a stroke.

Prior to his stroke, Sarkin was a chiropractor. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in environmental science from Rutgers University, in 1980 Sarkin received his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic. In 1982, Sarkin owned a chiropractic practice in South Hamilton, Mass. While Sarkin continued as a chiropractor for a few years after his stroke, he decided to sell his practice in 1994 due to difficulties he experienced with properly caring for his patients and also because of his new-found love of art.

For Sarkin, his transition from Chiropractic to art was an evolving process. “The transition was not a then-and-now transition,” he says. “The transformation for me was very challenging because I had a certain skill set as a chiropractor, and all of a sudden I wasn’t able to do it anymore.”

Sarkin says that the most challenging part of his stroke was not being the same person he once was, especially for his wife and children. But once Sarkin committed to his new profession, he noticed one glaring difference between being a chiropractor and an artist—the people. He notes that as a successful chiropractor, he was constantly busy and surrounded by people. However, as an artist, he spends most of his time alone, listening to talk radio to simply hear voices around him.

From album covers and photographs to wood and plastic, Sarkin uses an eclectic mix of materials and products on which to draw and paint. While some of his artwork can be found on more conventional backgrounds, like paper and canvas, Sarkin’s colorful, unfiltered artwork is sure to make a statement. “The primary thrust for me in visual arts is using permanent markers, colored pencils, paint and pastels,” he says. “Anything you can imagine drawing on, I draw on.”

While Sarkin’s artistic capabilities were not fully realized until he sold his chiropractic practice, art has always been a strong part of him, even as a chiropractor. “I’ve always been interested in art since I was a little kid,” he says. “I took art classes and liked going to museums, but I always considered it a vocation. I brought that same artistic sense to Chiropractic and thought about my practice in a holistic sense. In retrospect, I think what made me a good chiropractor is that I was able to look at Chiropractic differently.”

Even though Sarkin, whose artwork often sells for as much as $10,000, is now more focused on shading techniques and improving his work than adjustments and caring for patients, he says that it was his artistic mind that made him an effective chiropractor and continues to propel his success as an artist. “I brought my artistic sense to Chiropractic, and now I’ve simply retooled it,” he says. “What I’m doing now is not that different than what I was doing as a chiropractor. It’s the same brain, and I’m still the same person.”

Roy Halpern, D.C.

Like Sarkin, Roy Halpern’s beginning as an artist was somewhat accidental. About 10 years ago, Halpern, a chiropractor from Sebastopol, Calif., went to Alaska to watch the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a two-week-long, 1,150-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome. Working with the Iditarod Trail Committee as a chiropractor for both the dogs and mushers (the people relaying commands to the team of dogs), Halpern was able to see things others would never be able to experience.

“I saw wonderful places—the Northern Lights and the animals,” Halpern recalls. “I became obsessed with Alaska, and I would go during the winter and summer. I would be in the Arctic, looking for polar bears, walking with a moose and her baby or watching grizzly cubs nurse from their moms. I realized I was seeing things that people would never see, and I felt I must capture these moments. People need to see nature and appreciate the wild, so I started shooting pictures.”

While being a chiropractor led to the discovery of his passion for wildlife photography, a lower back injury in high school originally led him to Chiropractic. “I was taken by my father to the family chiropractor,” Halpern says. “I remembered him telling me, ‘Roy, this is a great profession, and you should consider being a chiropractor.’” Because he was not concerned with making a lifelong career choice at 14 years old, Halpern dismissed the idea and went to college with the hope of working with animals.

When he realized that his chosen career path may not provide the standard of living he was seeking, Halpern began searching for a career to better fit his personality and lifestyle—which at the time revolved around bodybuilding and nutrition. Soon, his childhood chiropractor entered his mind. After graduating from Palmer College of Chiropractic West in 1982, Halpern started his own practice, focusing on the diversified technique and utilizing chiropractic radiographs.

While he now works part-time four days a week, Halpern aims to split his time between Chiropractic and photography. Whether it is a 10-day-long excursion or a quick weekend trip to a local destination, Halpern has learned to wait patiently for the perfect shot. “Bear photographs are my favorite, but I was very excited to get my wolf shot,” he says. “I waited for six days in the rain. I took loads of bear photos, but I wanted that wolf. They are the hardest animals to photograph because they hate people and are elusive.”

For Halpern, nature photography is all about becoming one with nature and searching for “moments of grace,” or the timeless blending of humanity into the primal, untouched wilderness. “I was concerned that taking pictures would take me away from my true goal of being one with nature, but I was wrong,” he says. “It did not separate me from nature, but allowed me to focus on the other details I was missing—things like light, color, movement and composition. I started to realize that the camera allowed me to slow down and focus on my subjects.”

Uma Mulnick, D.C.

For the past 21 years, Mulnick has been running a successful chiropractic practice, Back County Chiropractic and Wellness Center in Idaho, with her husband Irwin. While she originally planned to become a midwife, Mulnick says a voice inside her told her not to limit herself and to care for the whole body. She received her Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Western States Chiropractic College, and a few years later, she and her husband opened their own general chiropractic practice, which also performs acupuncture, allergy care and sports medicine.

While healing through chiropractic care has been a major part of Mulnick’s life for the past 30 years, she recently discovered the healing power of art through mandalas. Meaning “sacred circle” in Sanskrit, mandalas are known for their meditative and healing energies due to the art form’s wholeness, which can be seen in its powerful center and symmetry.

Even though Mulnick began creating mandalas, which are colorful circles with an intricate geometric pattern, less than three years ago, art is not new to her. “As I look back through my life, I’ve always been doing something with art,” she says. During a Chopra Center retreat with her husband in September 2009, Mulnick came into contact with the work of Paul Heussenstamm, a famed mandala artist. “It touched the depths of my soul,” Mulnick recalls of her first encounter with Heussenstamm’s work. Upon hearing that he was coming to nearby Boise to teach others how to paint and create mandalas, Mulnick decided to take her first workshop.

Today, Mulnick not only creates mandalas, but she also holds monthly workshops, which typically last 10 to 12 hours in order for students to create a finished 12-by-12-inch mandala. “When I do workshops, it is very clear that I am not the teacher—the mandala is the teacher,” Mulnick says. “So for me, it works wonderfully with my chiropractic practice because it is another form of letting the patient heal.”

But creating an intricate, detailed mandala isn’t only for adults, as local fifth-grade students have been able to reap the benefits of the art of mandalas as well. Last year, as part of a program and grant through The Idaho Commission on the Arts and the Shelton Family Fund in the Idaho Community Foundation, Mulnick was given the opportunity to teach the healing power of mandalas to fifth graders at the Meadows Valley School in New Meadows, Idaho. “It was amazing to see the transformation of the kids and how they experienced the mandala’s calming effect,” Mulnick says.

Above all, Mulnick says what makes mandalas so special is their ability to not only help the artist achieve tranquility and peace, but the viewer as well. “The best thing I can say about mandalas is that they are a healing form of art,” she says. “We have them in our clinic, and people hang them in their homes or office—it is really healing. And when I paint, I am truly in a healing state of love.”

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Princeton Day School

Princeton Day School Students Curate an Exhibition with Three Artists

Jon Sarkin, “Untitled” (Courtesy of Princeton Day School)

The Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery at Princeton Day School is proud to present Facets, an exhibition curated by students Rachel Maddox ‘12 and Nicole Keim ’12, including the work of Jon Sarkin, Chris Harford, and Greg Nangle.

After seeing a group exhibition of thirty artists in a Princeton art gallery, Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery Club Co-Heads Rachel Maddox and Nicole Keim invited three leading artists to exhibit at the school. The Gallery Club will donate proceeds from sales during the exhibit to the ArtSpace Project at HomeFront.

Twenty-three years ago, chiropractor Jon Sarkin, was playing golf when suddenly, a tiny blood vessel as thin as a hair, shifted very slightly and rubbed onto an acoustic nerve in his brain.  After months of desperation and excruciating audio noise, Sarkin resorted to radical deep-brain surgery.  The surgery went well until he began to bleed internally and suffered a major stoke.  Awakening a different man, Sarkin was no longer the calm, happily married father he had been, but rather transformed into a volatile and obsessive artist, detached from his former life and drastically altered.

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#1. Man Has Part of Brain Removed After Stroke, Becomes Artist


At the age of 35, New Jersey man Jon Sarkin started to hear ringing in his ear. This was the type of ringing that, it turns out, could only be explained by overgrown blood vessels that require freaking brain surgery to fix.

Sarkin got his noggin cut open to fix the blood vessel, but later suffered a stroke and actually had to have part of his brain removed. All in all, it was almost the worst possible outcome for the surgery aside from death.

Or losing those awesome eyebrows.

Or at least, it would appear that way. Apparently the stroke and the brain surgery affected the “not being an artist” part of Sarkin’s brain, because after he left the hospital, the man became obsessed with drawing. Like the other people on this list, he had never shown any talent or flair for art, but became so fixated on it that he would rush off in the middle of family dinners to sketch symbols, draw objects and plain old paint for hours as ideas came to him — delicious mashed potatoes be damned!

Sinead O’Connor?

Sarkin was a chiropractor by trade, and actually returned to work, but he found no joy in savage neck twisting and back breaking anymore. He became withdrawn, and in between seeing patients, he would doodle obsessively. Then, his sister told him that if he liked drawing so dang much, he might as well make a buck or two at it. Sarkin sent a dozen drawings of weird and ghostly faces to The New Yorker, and much to his delight, the magazine bought them.

Dick Tracy?

From then on, the dude has been on an artistic roll. So much so that the doctors who examined him said his stroke has rewired his brain and given him something they dub “sudden artistic output,” a rare condition that has seen less than a handful of diagnosed cases ever (another of them being fellow Cracked listee Tommy McHugh), and which continues to mostly baffle the experts since it doesn’t really follow a specific pattern of brain injuries.

… Nixon?

Meanwhile, other national magazines such as GQ have bought Sarkin’s stuff, his paintings regularly sell for $10,000 a canvas and he’s had a book written about him. Oh, and Tom Cruise’s production company has actually bought the rights to his life story, so there’s a chance we could see Cruise himself play Jon Sarkin in a future biopic.

Read more: 6 People Who Gained Amazing Skills from Brain Injuries |