Stroke of Genius | Hidden Brain Derek Amato wasn't born a musical savant. He became one—almost instantly—after hitting his head on the bottom of a swimming pool.
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Stroke of Genius: How Derek Amato Became a Musical Savant

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Stroke of Genius: How Derek Amato Became a Musical Savant

Stroke of Genius: How Derek Amato Became a Musical Savant

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

So let's hear "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (laughter).

DEREK AMATO: As amazing as it sounds, I probably can't play that.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

AMATO: And I can explain why as we start chatting about it because... (Playing piano).

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A savant is defined as someone who does not have normal intelligence but possesses unusual mental abilities.

AMATO: My name is Derek Amato. I am 49 years old. I currently live in Virginia.

VEDANTAM: But, Derek is an unusual case. He's said to have something called acquired savant syndrome. It's left him with this incredible ability to compose and play piano. We'll talk about what that means, but let's back up a minute.

AMATO: I grew up a typical kid. I was an extremely aggressive athlete, so that was kind of my thing. I was a baseball, football, basketball player.

VEDANTAM: You were a jock.

AMATO: I was a jock, yeah. I had musical interest from very early on. My grandmother was a organ player for the church. So, you know, I was around it. I would - I remember Sunday mornings going, sitting next to her on the bench. And even though I didn't understand, you know, what she was doing or how to play the instrument, I loved to sit with her and sing. And it was just - it was my comfort zone as a child. When I'd go to church, I'd get to sit and watch her play the organ and sing.

VEDANTAM: At his mother's insistence, Derek dabbled in music. He joined the school band, played drums, tinkered around with a guitar, formed a rock band with friends. But he did not take formal lessons or get any musical training. OK, so that's the setup. What happens to Derek in 2006 is both terrifying and fascinating. He was in South Dakota visiting friends and family.

AMATO: I got together with some friends, and we were going to have a little barbecue party at the pool, an indoor pool. And we were horsing around, and this young man walked in. He must have been about 14, 12, 14, and he had this little miniature football with him. So of course, we started throwing the football at each other, and I started - I thought I could just run on the side of the pool and then dive over the water and catch the football in the air.

VEDANTAM: And the idea was you would catch it and then fall into the pool, yeah.

AMATO: Yeah, just catch it in the air and then fall into the water, and so I went running on the side of the pool, and I remember. I remember running alongside of the pool. I remember even diving in to catch the ball. And I knew I was diving towards the shallow end. I was very aware. And I miscalculated the depth, obviously, and I hit the upper left side of my face. And that's all. I remember it was like an explosion. And, you know, we've all - most of us have had a head trauma when we were a kid or hit our head, and it's that sickening feeling you would get when it's like, oh, no, I know something - I just did something extremely wrong, and this isn't right. And I knew I had hurt myself. Diagnosis was a massive concussion.

VEDANTAM: And what was the treatment?

AMATO: Relax, stay quiet, lay in bed for a few days, I spent the night at the hospital, and the next morning, they sent me home. I went home, and I slept. I slept for five days, basically.

VEDANTAM: And then you get up and do what?

AMATO: I was sitting at the table, and I said, well, I feel pretty darn good. I know I had an accident, and I'm not sure what happened. And I said, well, I'm going to pack, and I think I can go back to Denver in a couple days. So I called Rick, and I said, why don't you come over and get me? We'll say goodbyes, and I'll be on my way in a couple days. And so we went over to his apartment, and we were just hanging out, and he had this tiny keyboard, just this little piece of junk in the corner, and it was just on the stand, dusty and not sure if it had ever been played. And I kept staring at it as we were talking. And then we were sitting, talking just like this, and I kept looking at it and looking at it, curious. I was not sure why I was drawn to it. And I finally just walked over to it. And I thought, I'll just hit a few of these keys. I turn it on and see what happened. I had no clue. And I sat down, and my fingers just went crazy. My fingers were like somebody just - I don't know. Rick said the ghost of Beethoven jumped into my body (laughter). I don't know how else to explain it. I went crazy and just played and played, and it wasn't like I was just picking away.

VEDANTAM: What did you play?

AMATO: I played - I think it was more of the... (Playing piano). And it had this more of a classical structure to it. And I sat there and did this for, I don't know, five, six hours without stopping. And we just - I remember looking at him, and there were tears rolling down his face. I mean, he's a Christian kid. He's a pretty emotional guy. He's a sweet, sweet man. And he just - and he didn't know what to think as - because, I mean, I've known him since we were kids, and he had never seen me play a piano, so he's like, what's going on? I'm not sure what's going on. I didn't want to stop playing because I was like, well, what if I stop and then this doesn't happen tomorrow morning? I mean, this is kind of cool. I don't - I mean, it doesn't happen every day you just sit down and start playing a piano, so I think this is kind of different. Let's just stay here for a while. It must have been 2 o'clock in the morning, and I was exhausted. My brain was flying, still racing. And so he took me back to my mother's house. We had to call it a day. I was, you know, beat up, and I went to bed. And the next morning, I woke up, and I was paranoid. I was nervous. I was scared. I was like, how am I going to tell my mother, the person that knows me best on this planet, I just hit my head, and I'm a little whacked out? How am I going to tell her that I just discovered that I know how to play the piano fairly well to a person that's known me my entire life, 40 years? So I said, well, I don't know any other way than to take her to a music store. So I said - we had a cup of coffee, and I said, let's run to the music store real quick. And she said, what do you want to buy, and I said, nothing. I said, I just want to show you something real fast. I wouldn't tell her. We get to the music store. We walk in. The salesman says, I don't know, like, you know, he - can I help you? He wants to sell me something. And I said, if you show me how to get this piano, this digital piano on, that's all I need, and then give me just 10 minutes. So he turns it on, shows me how to turn the darn thing on. I tell my mother to sit down next to me.

VEDANTAM: What did you play?

AMATO: I don't quite remember what I played that time, but I was doing more of a - I wanted to sing to her for some reason because it was such an emotional thing. And I was going into like...(Playing piano). And I just started to kind of chord this. And she was looking at me like, well, when did this transpire? And she - I mean, she had all kinds of questions right away. And then I just kind of went nuts and started going crazy just to show her, well, look at this. Look at this. And she started crying. She really didn't say much. It was a very quiet drive home.

VEDANTAM: As you're telling me this, Derek, I almost have the feeling that you are pulling my leg right now because it seems this is not possible. This is just simply not...

AMATO: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: It could not have happened.

AMATO: You know, well, if I would've had my way, I'm not sure if I would've ended up a piano player. I kind of wanted to be a baseball player...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

AMATO: ...Or work in the fighting business, so I don't know. I - and you know what, I invite skepticism because I think when something so beautiful and profound happens, we have to question.

VEDANTAM: At what stage did you stop questioning that you had a skill? I'm assuming that you were skeptical as well. I mean, you told me that when you went home the first night, you were afraid that it was going to be a one-day skill, and it was going to be gone by the next morning. At what point did you stop questioning it and say, this is actually a new skill that I have?

AMATO: You know, I think you kind of grow into that, getting comfortable with accepting what's transpired in your life. I definitely didn't want it to go away. And the first year or two, it was a little, you know, like I would wake up thinking, I need to get to a piano. I need to make sure it's still here. And then as time went on, I started to understand that - well, the doctors tell me it can go away as fast as it came. And acquired musical savant syndrome, that means you've acquired a gift. And I got to that point where I just accepted the fact that I'm going to enjoy every second of this because if I wake up tomorrow and it's gone, I want to be able to say that I did the best I could to display it to a society looking in at my life and saying, I've been inspired by this, or the human potential is amazing, or the brain is just a magnificent, you know, organ that we don't know anything about. And I think it became that comfort in knowing that I'm going to enjoy it every single second. And if it stays, beautiful. If it goes away, then I guess I'll go get a job.

VEDANTAM: Have you spoken to neurologists who are skeptical about what's happening to you?

AMATO: I think they're all skeptical the moment they walk in the door.

VEDANTAM: I mean, I feel skeptical. I'm sorry. I know that you're a...

AMATO: Absolutely.

VEDANTAM: I know that you're a nice guy...

AMATO: Oh, I...

VEDANTAM: ...And you seem like a trustworthy person.

AMATO: Right. Right. I expect you to be.

VEDANTAM: But I have the feeling that you're just - this is just one big giant prank.

AMATO: Well, that's because I'm still - I'm articulate, and I still have most of my marbles. So I can display this story in a different way than, let's say, the guy that hit his head and woke up a piano player, but he's not all here.

VEDANTAM: If I asked you to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" for me, could you try that?

AMATO: I don't think I can play it. I tried to do "Happy Birthday" for a person the other day, and I couldn't figure it out. (Playing piano). No, answer's no (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Start with C.

AMATO: Is that this one right here? (Playing piano). Oh. (Playing piano). Wait. (Playing piano). Where was that first note then? (Playing piano). Wait. (Playing piano). Where - oh, so it's all up and down?(Playing piano). Gosh darn it. I can see it now. (Playing piano). I mean, that's kind of in there.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

AMATO: Thanks for the first note, though.

VEDANTAM: But it's sort of an interesting thing, isn't it, which is like, you don't go up - you don't see someone who says, you know, I can throw a fastball at, I don't know, 140 miles an hour, but I don't know how to reach out and shake your hand. And to me, you're displaying musical ability at one end of the spectrum whereas playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," I can do that.

AMATO: Right.

VEDANTAM: And you find it hard. And I find it just really difficult to understand how you can be so good at the extreme end...

AMATO: Right.

VEDANTAM: ...Without knowing the basics.

AMATO: I'm right there with you. I'm on your side. I'm fascinated with that, too.

VEDANTAM: Does it disturb you? Does it worry you that you have this ability?

AMATO: No, I mean, I'm a Christian kid, so I think this is where God wants me. I think this has already been panned out, my story. I - how else - I mean, I have to do live this every day, so if I sit and beat my own mind up about is this nature versus nurture and nature and all this nonsense, but I mean, I've talked to the best doctors, the smartest doctors on this planet, and they all got a different little input, and they all got something different to say about it. Most all of them are skeptic when I walk in, and most all of them when I walk out are right here with me.

VEDANTAM: Have any of them suggested treatments?

AMATO: Yes, yes, they - Dr. Reeves at the Mayo Clinic, when I was filming with the Discovery Channel, he was fascinated with this as well, and he said - the best way for him to explain it is like a roller coaster. If you get on a roller coaster that doesn't stop, sooner or later, it's going to get tiring. So maybe we suggest slowing down the stimulant, the overstimulated brain. You're firing these neurons at a pace that's unheard of. So let's try some seizure medication to shut those down, right? I don't know - understand how it works, but I do know it slows down the firing of the neurons. Why would I want to take synthetic drugs and mask something possibly that I'm enjoying to the point where I don't want it to slow down or go away? I'll take the hyperness and the ADHD and the OCD and all that garbage that comes with this maybe.

VEDANTAM: What if it has a consequence where you are burning your brain at a level that is not healthy for you? I mean, so for example, let's...

AMATO: Then I guess I go down on fire, baby.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

AMATO: And that's how the story ends, and I'm good with that.

VEDANTAM: You are still the guy who would dive for the football over the swimming pool.

AMATO: Yeah. (Playing piano).

VEDANTAM: Coming up, we'll find out more about acquired savant syndrome.

AMATO: They are so motivated. They are in love with what they're doing. It's almost like an extension of who they are.

VEDANTAM: Also I'm going to challenge Derek to play the studio wall.

AMATO: I see - on this wall, I see these squares. Some of them have different depths. So the full squares almost feel like a whole note to me.

VEDANTAM: Keep listening. It'll make more sense soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: You can help improve NPR's podcast by sharing your opinions in a brief survey. Please log on to npr.org/brainsurvey. We'd love to hear from you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. As you've probably picked up by now, if you've listened to a few episodes of this podcast, I'm a card-carrying rationalist. When surprising things happen, I don't call them miracles. I look for explanations. Derek's very charming, his story's amazing, but I found myself asking over and over how something like this could happen. That's when I came by a couple of researchers who've spent years studying people who've suddenly acquired savant-like gifts. Darold Treffert is a psychiatrist in Wisconsin. He studied Derek.

DAROLD TREFFERT: And I must say that in his case, I am, you know - I was as startled as you about the fact that he went to the piano and knew where to place his fingers and so forth. The reason that I'm inclined to accept that is because I've seen that in some of these other cases, although probably not quite as abrupt as he. But - and to me at least, that having seen a lot of savants, when I see some of these acquired savant cases, it is really quite jarring.

VEDANTAM: I don't know if you remember what Derek said about his injury. He leaped across the swimming pool for the football, and when he came down hard, he heard what sounded like an explosion.

AMATO: And I miscalculated the depth, obviously, and I hit the upper left side of my face.

VEDANTAM: The left side of his face, that's an important clue.

TREFFERT: In general, in savant syndrome itself, whether congenital or acquired, there tends to be a more left brain injury with right brain compensation, and the right brain areas or abilities that seem to emerge have to do with art, music and mathematics, actually.

VEDANTAM: Art, music and math, all skills that involve pattern recognition, at the University of Pennsylvania, cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman said, think about it. These are the skills you might imagine are built into the architecture of the brain. In other words, we might come hardwired for certain kinds of activities. This is the insight that helped me see that Derek might not be pulling a prank. Most of us, in fact, effortlessly learn things. Just like Derek says he never took classes to learn piano, you probably didn't take formal lessons to learn your first language.

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: The truth is that a lot of things we learn in life were not done deliberately. When we were very young and between, you know, the ages of 2 and 4, we learned a huge amount of new words and learned the grammatical structure of our language automatically without - we didn't, like, sit down when we were 2 years old and say, right, I'm going to learn all the grammatical syntax and what it all means and - so we have these structures that help us learn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: If you look at it this way, most people have skills that might seem savant-like to a visitor from another planet. We learn these skills effortlessly. In fact, it doesn't even feel like learning. It feels like fun. What makes savants unique, in other words, is not that their brains do amazing things. All brains do amazing things. What's different is that they're demonstrating effortless learning in domains that usually call for sustained effort. Now I'm not going to tell you you should go out and bang your head against the floor of a swimming pool to learn to play the piano. The vast majority of concussions don't produce an inner genius. They have terrible outcomes. But, Derek's story does suggest, even to this card-carrying rationalist, that we have worlds within us, gifts that we do not realize that we possess.

KAUFMAN: When I look at these savants, what I see at the core that I think is - offers a lot of inspiration to humanity is that they are so motivated. They are in love with what they're doing. It's almost like an extension of who they are. To me, that is - offers a lot of hope, inspires me that perhaps all of us can find that vehicle that really allows us to sing.

VEDANTAM: As Derek was playing the piano in NPR Studio One, I noticed there was a wall behind him. It had soundproofing, hollow wooden cubes, each of a different depth. Derek had told me that when he plays, he sees squares floating by him. So I asked him to turn around, look at the wall, and tell me what he saw.

AMATO: I see - on this wall, I see these squares. Some of them have different depths. So the full squares almost feel like a whole note to me.

VEDANTAM: I asked Derek to play the wall for me.

AMATO: So I would - I see low because - I see low notes because all the depth. You see the dark ones that are filled in all the way? They stand out. So I see low notes like... (Playing piano). Now I'm in the middle boxes. See where I'm at now in those middle boxes? So those are... (Playing piano). And that's a whole different - now we're going into a whole different thing. Now I'm getting excited (laughter). You got any more walls to look at?

VEDANTAM: So you were just playing the wall? That's what you were playing, so playing music on the wall?

AMATO: I was playing what I - so I started here, OK? So imagine that's the music bar.

VEDANTAM: Yeah.

AMATO: So I played the top one. I'll do it again. I'll do it precisely, exactly like I saw it. (Playing piano). And then it changes to this bar. We've moved down now, and now we're going to move down to the next bar of music. And I see... (Playing piano). And we'll go back up to the top. (Playing piano). And then we can make it jazz. (Playing piano). And that's - and I mean, it just goes on and on and on and on. And these walls could be dangerous because I wouldn't want to sleep at all.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

AMATO: If I have walls like this at my house...

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Are you telling me that you have never played the piece of music you just played for me in your life before?

AMATO: No, and I - and this third row might even be a whole different competition. That's what I'm saying. The depths of those blocks - those metal rows and those circles in the middle, that's what these are to me. That's what... (Playing piano). Those are rolling patterns to me. And then those chunky ones on the top, that's where I see that... (Playing piano). And it just changes like that suddenly, and then I move down to the next one, and it's a whole different flow. (Playing piano).

VEDANTAM: That's Derek Amato playing the wall in NPR Studio One. We'll have a video of Derek on our Facebook page. Please check it out. The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak, special thanks this week to Neil Tevault. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and listen to my stories on your local public radio station. To check out our newsletter, send us an email at hiddenbrain@npr.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. Car advice, tips, troubleshooting, occasionally answers to car questions, in between the laughter and the snorts, that's the Car Talk podcast with Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers. Laugh along anytime to the Car Talk podcast available now at npr.org/podcasts and on the NPR One app.

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