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Concussion Turns Ordinary Man into Musical Genius, Overnight

If getting hit on the head means that I’d get to be a kickass musician for the rest of my life, I think I would seriously consider it. It sounds impossible, but something of the sort happened to 41-year-old Derek Amato. He really didn’t have a choice about it, though.

Derek had no idea his life was about to change forever when he dove into the shallow end of a pool to catch a football at a party. He hit his head and had a concussion, resulting in Acquired Savant Syndrome – a rare condition where people display profound abilities (called savant skills) after suffering head trauma, abilities that they didn’t have at birth. In Derek’s case, the acquired ability is music.

Derek is one of only 30 people in the world with this rare condition and the only one to have acquired music as a savant skill. Before the fall, he just dabbled in guitar and had no idea how to read or write music. And now he can play eight different instruments with the ease of a professional musician. Watching him play on video, it’s pretty hard to believe this man has had no formal training in music at all.

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Photo: Derek Amato

Derek vividly remembers the accident that changed his life in October 2006: “I remember the panic set in that I knew I hurt myself. I knew it was something bad. As I dove into the swimming pool, I remember coming up out of the water complaining that my ears were bleeding.”

“As I looked at my friends for explanation, I recall their lips moving but without sound. As I touched my ears to check for bleeding, I realized there was no blood, and I couldn’t hear anything at all.”

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Photo: Ingenious Minds video caption

Derek suffered a serious concussion and permanent 35 percent hearing loss. He still experiences frequent headaches and memory loss. But Derek feels that this is a small price to pay for the blessing he has received. He wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s understandable, because Derek was struggling with a string of odd-jobs and being homeless, not really knowing what he wanted to do with his life. Now, he is a full-time musician with two albums under his belt.

It was at his best friend’s home, shortly after his fall, that Derek had discovered his new gift. When he looked at the keyboard, he says he was simply drawn to it and that he knew exactly what he had to do. “It was one of those moments when you just know. It was no ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, it was a fully structured piece,” he said.

 

Derek still cannot read music, although he hears music in his head 24 hours a day. He sees black and white squares in his mind that instruct him on exactly how his fingers need to move. “That’s my notation,” he says. “How I see music in my mind is – I’ve always kind of explained it as black and white blocks that move left to right in a wave pattern. The imagery of these blocks push me to play. It almost insists I play.”

I think it’s fascinating how Derek’s brain approaches music. It’s very different from how music is traditionally taught. He just looks at the instrument and seems to intuitively know how to play it. A neurologist at the Mayo clinic who examined Derek says it’s possible he might have Synesthesia – the combining of two separate sensory processes. So people with Synesthesia will talk about tasting colors, seeing sounds, and that’s what Derek talks about. Derek can actually see music and feel it in his hands.

 

Unfortunately, it’s possible that Derek might lose his acquired savant skill as quickly as it came. He has no control over it, and neither do doctors. Derek says he would be devastated if that happened, because he’s really enjoying his unexpected gift. I do hope he gets better and gets to keep his gift as well.

Sources: Amazing Stuff, PopSci

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