“I was always around music – I just never played it,” says Derek Amato. This statement may not seem that extraordinary but, for Derek, it certainly is – at the age of 40, he awoke from a concussion as a musical genius. On October 27, 2006, Derek had gotten together with some friends for a pool party. They were playing football in the tiny back yard and, performing a macho leap, Derek jumped high over the water to catch the ball. Misjudging the depth of the pool, he crashed headfirst into the hard bottom of the shallow end.
“I didn’t lose consciousness right away,” Derek explains. “I came out of the water and immediately knew I was hurt. I thought my ears were bleeding and I couldn’t hear anything. My friends were talking, but I could only see their lips move.”
Noticing that Derek was hurt, his friends dragged him out of the pool and took him to hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion and sent home early next morning to rest. “I think they sent me home just because I was being an asshole,” Derek says, laughing. “You know, when you have a head trauma, you get rather frustrated and your triggers are short. I was pretty adamant that I was okay, and I just wanted to go.”
Derek slept nearly non-stop for the following four days. His mother woke him up every couple of hours to make sure he was still breathing, and put ice on his black eyes and forehead. He had a huge swelling from the bruise on the front of his head: “I looked like I’d been run over by a train,” Derek says.
On the fifth day he woke up and, as if a miracle, felt completely normal. He remembered he had had an accident, but he couldn’t recall the details. He didn’t even know where he was, or what the date was. In fact, he thought he was in Arizona training for baseball. Despite feeling completely beaten up, he told his mother he was recovered and then went to his best friend Rick’s house. This visit would reveal something quite astonishing.
Derek had never played the piano before. But, for some reason, Derek felt drawn to a piano he knew was upstairs. Sitting down on the piano bench, Derek started to play. His friend didn’t know what was going on. Neither did he. “I just felt this weird energy that made me want to go fumble around with it. I had no idea my hands would know where to go,” he tells us.
To both Rick and Derek’s astonishment, he played like a virtuoso. “I just sat down and played intensely. It wasn’t like someone playing ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’,” Derek says with an unexpected indifference. “It was like Beethoven snuck into my bloodline. All of a sudden someone turned on a switch: I played a classically-structured piece. I kept going for six hours.”
When Derek finally turned to look at Rick, his friend had tears in his eyes. “We didn’t know what to think,” Derek says. “We didn’t know if God was in the room. We didn’t know if we should have another beer! We didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
The next day, he talked his mom into going to the music store. He didn’t want to tell his mom about his new gift: he wanted to show her. Arriving at the store, he sat her down next to him and, putting fingers to keyboard, played like he had done the night before. His mom started crying. “What are you doing, Derek?” she asked. “I really don’t know, Mom,” Derek replied, “I really don’t.”
Before long, he was put in contact with a Los Angeles music business, who flew him out to California and put him on stage. The audience was astonished, the organizers dumbfounded – this guy really could play! This was Derek’s first flirt with stardom. Yet upon his return to his hometown of Denver, Colorado, he withdrew from the world. “I was trying to understand what my mind was doing. I was trying to get a grip on these changes that had kind of designed a whole new person.”
Since then, Derek has signed a recording contract, scored a movie soundtrack, and has even been invited to attend the 2013 Grammys. He’s been featured on television shows such as News on Fox, The Today Show, The Jeff Probst Show and the hit series Sons of Anarchy (his tattoos make him especially fitting for the show). Derek regularly travels around the country to perform at various sold-out venues, and was even called to share his gift at a TED conference in March 2013.
“It’s like a tickertape in my brain”
Derek explains that, after the accident, he began to see little black and white squares moving from left to right across his visual field. “It’s like a tickertape rolling around my brain,” he says. This constant stream of musical notation drives Derek’s compulsory movement of fingers up and down the piano. His hands read each square one at a time, each a musical note corresponding to a finger position on the piano. He uses six fingers to play – the thumb, index finger and ring finger on each hand. “I don’t know why all ten don’t want to play along. I suppose it’s a comfortable position for my hands,” he says.
The experience of seeing little black and white squares appears to be an unusual form of a condition called synaesthesia. In its most common form (called grapheme-color synesthesia), letters and numbers become associated with specific colors, textures and personalities. Other rarer cases may lead to people experiencing ‘ping’ sounds in response to familiar faces, or even complex geometrical mental images triggered by looking at or thinking about mathematical equations.
Though Derek’s case of synesthesia is rare, it is not uncommon for synesthetes to gain certain advantages. Jason Padgett, another individual we have been working with (and have written about in Issue Ten), is able to draw intricate geometrical designs by hand, on the basis of his synesthetic experiences. Many graphemecolor synesthetes have an enhanced memory of words and numbers, and some synesthetes experience months and time as located in an inner space, giving them an extraordinary memory for particular dates.
Music reshapes the brain
Research indicates that musical ability may lie dormant in all of us, waiting to be developed through practice or, as in Derek’s case, triggered if the brain undergoes massive restructuring. Recent research looking at what happens in the brains of trained musicians and non-musicians has shown many similarities: brains of both the musically talented and musically inept fire signals in precisely the same way when hearing musical mistakes and out-of-place notes. So certain basic musical abilities appear to be innate – ‘hard-wired’ into everyone.
But the brains of musicians and non-musicians differ in several important ways. Grey matter is the ‘meat’ of the brain, home to all the hardworking neurons. White matter is the space in between, mostly consisting of the wiring (axons) connecting neurons to one another. Musicians have more grey matter in the areas of the brain responsible for movement, sensation, and language processing – a difference that appears to be shaped through the right kind of musical practice. Put simply, professional musicians’ brains are shaped to allow for greater musical ability.
The musically trained brain is also more efficient: brain imaging studies have shown that musical professionals actually use less of their brains to initiate complex movement. So it is likely that long-term practice changes both the structure of the brain, and the way in which it executes complex repetitive movement.
But how can a concussion lead to extraordinary musical ability? For the moment, this remains a mystery – but our knowledge of musical processing in the brain and what happens in traumatic brain injury have given us some ideas. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can occur either as a result of a blunt force or shockwave from a blast. In both situations, the inside of the rapidly-moving skull sends shockwaves throughout the soft brain tissue. If the striking force is strong enough, it can cause the brain to ‘bounce’ off the inside of the skull, resulting in further shockwaves. These waves emanate through the brain, twisting and pulling on the connections between neurons, tearing them apart and causing damage. TBI is a particularly devastating problem for soldiers who repeatedly sustain mortar shell attacks at close- to mid-range, many of whom report memory coordination problems years later.
During a concussion, the nerve function of several brain regions become paralyzed as the brain shakes inside the head. When this happens, salt levels, which are normally carefully balanced, are disturbed: potassium atoms inside the nerve cells leak out and calcium ions surge in. These drastic molecular changes shut down the neuron’s internal energy-generating engines, causing the huge, uncontrolled release of neurotransmitter chemicals, which bombard neighboring nerve cells. This bombardment causes the affected neurons to die off, leading to scar tissue, whereas other affected neurons gradually regain normal function.
Though we don’t yet fully know the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury, it is possible that the uncontrolled release of neurotransmitters from dying neurons actually enhances brain activity in neighboring brain regions. We think this boost (in the musical processing areas, for example) could be permanent.
Derek’s black and white blocks might be explained in a similar way, with excessive brain activity causing visual images – images that make it possible for an unschooled individual to act in ways that would not otherwise be possible. So, Derek’s musical blocks are the brain’s way of translating new thinking patterns into action.
The cost of being a genius
The many changes brought about by this new found musical ability have come at a cost. He lost about 35 percent of his hearing from the damage to his brain and also lost the ability to dream for about seven years. He also became hypersensitive to light and sounds. “Fluorescent lighting makes me sick,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll pass out if the lighting is too strong.” He has memory problems and can’t always recall the musical pieces he has composed. But his hands usually can.
He also has what appears to be a form of dyslexia. “Sometimes when I’m physically writing with a pen, or even typing, I get the letters mixed up. I’m starting to spell a word – ‘loud,’ let’s say. I’ll write ‘l’ and then I’ll put a ‘d’ and then an ‘o’ and a ‘u’. It even looks right to me, but it’s frustrating.”
Derek’s sudden dyslexia could be the result of excessive electrical circuitry in the brain, brought on by his brain injury – and we asked if he would be willing to take some tests to find out. “No, I don’t know if I want to know,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to be labeled, man. The world is looking at my life. What if I have to get a real job some day?”
Despite these costs, Derek is grateful to be able to put some money away for his son and daughter. He even has a little left over for those in need. Running from film studio to film studio, recording music in between, Derek may seem flaky and swinish. But appearances can be deceptive. Derek doesn’t aim to be an avaricious Hollywood star. He is tenderhearted and philanthropic. “I want to spend the rest of my life giving. I want to feed homeless people,” Derek says in an interview with Ability Magazine’s Donna Mize. “I sleep on the streets with the homeless. I give them every last dime in my pocket. The material side of it all doesn’t matter. I haven’t had a car in five years. I don’t own a home. I float between my son’s house and staying with friends in northern Colorado. I only have a cell phone, so the kids can get me if they need me. I have nothing, and yet I have it all.”