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Head injury turns man into musical savant

June 7, 2012 at 11:08 AM ET

When Derek Amato crashed headfirst into the hard bottom of a pool, he was scared about what he might have done to his brain. But amazingly the fallout from that accident wasn’t all bad. Along with the headaches and other post-concussion symptoms, the accident brought Amato an unexpected gift: it turned him into a musical savant.

Although Amato had always loved music, he’d never been serious about playing any instrument before the head injury. Amato dabbled a bit with guitar before the accident but described his musical ability to TODAY as “on a scale of 1 to 10 . . . like a 2.5, close to 3.”

Amato now plays the piano like a virtuoso, making up melodies from the patterns of black and white blocks that stream across his brain in endless succession. He’s cut an album of original compositions and is currently at work on another.  

Amato isn’t the only person who has had artistic talents spring from an injury to the brain. While rare, there are at least 30 others around the world who have developed musical abilities after some sort of brain trauma. Damage to the brain has also been known to spark the ability to draw and paint in others who had never before put pen or paint brush to easel.

Amato’s life changing head injury occurred in 2006 when he was horsing around with some friends. He dove into the shallow end of a pool and hit his head hard.

“I remember the panic that set in,” Amato remembers. “Like I knew I hurt myself. I knew it was something bad.”

Doctors diagnosed a concussion and Amato was briefly hospitalized.

A few days after the accident, he dropped in on a musician friend. Amato spotted the friend’s keyboard and felt inexplicably drawn to it.

“It was just one of those moments where you just know,” he told TODAY’s Matt Lauer. “It was just drawing me to it.”

Amato sat down at the keyboard and immediately started playing. Though he’d never had a lesson, it was as if he’d played all his life. And what he was playing now was all original.

“It just all came out,” he told TODAY. “It was almost like it was just flowing with no limitations. Really.”

Amato was examined by Mayo Clinic neurologist Dr. Andrew Reeves in a session that was captured and broadcast by the Science Channel.  Reeves says that the head injury rewired Amato’s brain circuitry leading to an  “acquired savant syndrome.”

Amato does have some serious residual effects from the concussion. “I deal with fluorescent light issues,” he told TODAY’s Matt Lauer. “I collapse sometimes out of the blue. And the migraines and headaches are intense. And my hearing is half gone.”

Still, Amato said, the newfound talent makes up for all of that.

“I think the headaches and the loss of hearing – those things are kind of the price-tag on this particular gift,” he told Lauer. “And I’m OK with that. So I look at it as a blessing.”

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