It’s estimated that there are no more than 50 savants alive today. Even more rare, less than a dozen of those are accidental savants — otherwise known as “sudden geniuses.” If you’re not familiar, ‘sudden genius’ is the result of an extremely rare case of head trauma which leaves the victim with a prodigious gift — in music or painting or even mathematics.
One of the most mind-bending instances of sudden genius in recent history is that of Derek Amato, who suffered a major concussion after diving into the shallow end of a pool in 2006, while trying to catch a football. A twist of fate that, at first, seemed to trigger only misfortune.
“The first week was weird,” Amato explains. “When I woke up, I realized I had been sleeping for five days, and all of a sudden my hands were extremely fidgety and nervous, almost like tapping nervous. I recognized that right away, and I was seeing these blocks and squares going in motion. It was all out of whack…I was seeing squares, they were black and white.”
Amato would soon come to realize that the black and white squares floating across his vision were now permanent. That’s because his brain injury had resulted in synesthesia — a condition in which “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.”
In other words: Derek could now see sound. But that’s not the most amazing thing about his injury. Not only did he survive and develop this very rare form of synesthesia, but Amato was also gifted with the immediate and spontaneous ability to play the piano. And… play it really well.
“Think of being overloaded with millions of notations. Little musical marks, if you can just imagine being overloaded with those 24 hours a day,” he says. “I just try and dictate what my mind’s eye sees, the black and white squares that I see. My fingers kind of gradually go towards playing what I see. I’ll play for an hour or two and kind of let my brain go, and just play what I see.”
Prior to the accident, Amato had absolutely no musical training or ability. When he woke up, he had the ability to play music with the proficiency of a trained professional. Not normal in the least.
“I think I only physically capture a small percent of what I’m composing,” he continues. “And I struggle with displaying that a lot because my dexterity is much different than a trained pianist. Usually my first six fingers want to play, my thumb, my index finger and my ring finger on each hand. Sometimes my pinky will want to jump in, but mostly it’s those three fingers. But ever since I woke up, it’s felt comfortable.”
As a result of his sudden genius, the past decade of Amato’s life has been a whirlwind of clinical studies, musical compositions, and live concerts. It’s as if he woke up from his accident, started sprinting, and hasn’t stopped moving since.
“I’m always on,” Amato admits. “Always going, and maybe that’s the best description. I’m always on. And I love it, I’ve acclimated to it somewhat. I mean it’s still a struggle every now and then, but I’ve really grown into the skin of loving this high.”
It’s easy to see that Derek is comfortable with who he is, despite the amazing change that the injury has brought about in his life. And it hasn’t been just music, either. His kindness and ability to relate with other people is almost intuitive and, like his musical abilities, may actually be a result of the injury.
“My compassion, my empathy, my love for people has intensified on different levels” he says. “They’re actually testing me at the University of Miami for a different kind of synesthesia that involves touch. They’re trying to figure out why I have such a different bond with autistic children. For example, I seem to have a very interactive experience when I touch some of these people, physically. They’re trying to figure out my empathic, intuitive energy. What’s changed in my brain since the accident that’s allowed me to feel life differently.”
“Sometimes if I hug a person who is incredibly hurt or sad, I feel nauseous,” he continues. “I want to throw up. And it doesn’t happen with everybody, it’s not every day, but it’s something that I don’t talk about very often because I already look crazy. So when you start throwing in the weird stuff and the human touch, it starts getting very intense. And I think it takes a very open audience to understand something that could be that profound.”
The concussion has had negative side effects as well — including migraines, partial deafness, and occasional loss of consciousness. In fact, these symptoms are sometimes debilitating, and the doctors who study Derek are still unsure of what their long term effects might be. But when asked if he could change things, if he could go back in time and prevent the accident, Derek responds immediately and emphatically, “no.”
“I think I’m the walking example of a profound situation in life taking place,” Amato concludes. “We’ve got to see it and feel it and hear it, the music is just a part of it. There’s the life changing things and the downfalls, the migraines, the hearing, the collapsing, always racing, my neurons always firing so much that it could just kill me. It could just wear me out.”
Sudden genius… but at a cost?
“I mean, one day I could just have a heart attack from being overloaded, from always being on. And at the same time, if that’s how the story goes, then I’m delighted that I have this experience. I don’t want to change that. If that’s how the story ends, then that’s how the story ends.”