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Head injury creates a musical genius

Posting in Science

Pooling his talents. Derek Amato (above) now plays the piano swimmingly, after cracking his head in a diving mishap at the shallow end.

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Derek Amato had never played piano before. But a horrific blow to the head a few years ago changed that, altering his brain so that he now performs and composes as a musical genius and is recording his second album.

Amato, a self-described former "devil-may-care" dude, writes in The Guardian how at the age of 39 he cracked his skull diving into the shallow end at a Toronto pool party. The consequence: Not only a severe concussion, but also a rare condition that neurologists call "acquired savant syndrome."

The cranial blow in 2006 did not trigger the cliché stars that people supposedly see.

Rather, it released black and white squares that to this day run through his mind's vision "like a ticker tape," Amato says in a radio interview that aired over the weekend on BBC Radio 4' Saturday Live program, which you can listen to here for as long as the link remains live (his segment begins about 26 minutes in).

The squares stream 24 hours a day, serving as musical signals that prompt his fingers to glide over the keyboard.  Forget feeling the music. Amato, who cannot read scores, literally sees the music, a condition known as synaesthesia.

RAINMAN'S RETURN

Derek Amato: "It was no Mary Had a Little Lamb."

"I call Derek 'Rainman Beethoven,'" quips one of several observers extolling Amato's overnight professional abilities in a YouTube video from Science Channel (embedded below), comparing him to the Dustin Hoffman savant character in the film Rainman.

Amato realized his newfound talent a few days after the accident, while visiting his musician friend Rick Strum.

"We were just sitting around, talking, when I felt an intense, utterly compelling need to touch his piano," Amato writes in The Guardian.

"I just moved over and started playing - there was no transition, it was all at once, like I'd been doing it all my life.  I'd played guitar in a couple of little rock bands when I was young but I'd never progressed beyond that on my instrument. Yet here I was, producing a fluid melody I'd never heard before."

Or, as Amato puts it in the Science Channel video, "It was no Mary Had a Little Lamb. It was a fully structured piece."

He recalls how "Rick stared, open-mouthed. 'Derek,' he said, 'What's going on?' I had no answer. I just wanted to keep playing."

Amato can now play several instruments he never previously touched.

PAYING THE PIPER

His mishap has not been all beautiful music. Amato lost nearly half his hearing in one ear and suffers terrible headaches. Fluorescent lights can make him pass out.

But he is the world's only documented acquired musical savant. There are also about 30 known cases of head trauma victims displaying other new talents.

His musicianship might not last. "My children have even bought me a whitewater rafting helmet in case I bang my head again and reverse the process," says Amato, who lives in Colorado.

Amato's story circulated earlier this year, when we overlooked it here at SmartPlanet. The Christmas season seemed like a good time to play it up again.

Besides, it now comes with a few new twists: There's the forthcoming second album, and, judging by Amato's website, he will be publishing his story in a book called My Beautiful Disaster.

But as curious and inspirational as his tale is, I wouldn't recommend diving in the shallow end.

You want to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.

Video from Science Channel via YouTube. Photos are screen grabs from same video.

For more clips on the "Musical Rainman," visit the media section of Amato's website.

— By on December 25, 2012, 11:33 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure