Friday, December 14, 2012

The Acquired Savant

Topical Reference:
"Ingenious Minds: Derek Amato" by Discovery Communications
(Full Episode shared on YouTube)

This video documents the case of Derek Amato, who had a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) on the left side due to diving into the shallow end of a pool. He self-reports seeing small floating black and white blocks move from the left to the right side in his mind. He describes this experience as an incessant and uncontrolled internal representation that is calmed and relieved by piano performance. The blocks represent musical sounds that he can translate onto the piano. He and his family claim that he had absolutely no experience with piano playing before his injury. However, after his injury, he gained the ability to improvise entire pieces of music with seemingly well-practiced technique. Thus, he is described as an "Acquired Savant," since his ability was not innate through birth, had no incipient stage and appeared later in life.

Later in the episode, a brain scan reveals that he seems to have some damage in his cortex tissues. The neuroscientist describes his internal perception of moving blocks and their association to sound as synesthesia. Derek then reports that the blocks and the compulsive need to translate their information to piano is inhibited when he has strong headaches, which have afflicted him since before his TBI.


Synesthesia has been shown to exist in the general population to a small degree, as demonstrated by experiments such as those on the "Bouba-Kiki" paradigm (Ramachandran, 2001). "Bouba" and "Kiki" were described to participants as the names of 2 separate letters in an alien alphabet. One letter was a curvy-rounded shape, while the other was a pointy-spiked object (see Figure 1). Researchers simply asked the participants to label one of the symbols "Bouba" and one of the symbols "Kiki." Ninety-five percent of participants named the curvy object, "Bouba" and the pointy object, "Kiki." This is evidence that most people seem to have a slight associative synesthesia between visual shapes and speech sounds.

Figure 1. Experiments show people tend to name the object on the left "Kiki" and the object on the right "Bouba," when asked to guess which of the two labels is associated with each shape.

One of the key things to remember about the "Bouba-Kiki" paradigm is that this kind of synesthesia does not necessarily invasively change the standard orientation of cross-modal sensory systems. Thus, despite associative pathways existing between shapes and sounds, 'normal' brains do not automatically process specific words when these shapes are seen, and vice versa. Put simply, the association between visual shapes and syllabic sounds is hardwired and softwired into the brain in a common way at the level of perception or abstraction but not necessarily sensation. Derek claims that his mind automatically and involuntarily associates imagined black and white shapes to specific pitches and rhythms. Further, he claims to be able to predictably and consistently decode these associations into musical sounds through the piano. This should be tested because the types of skills that Derek displays are not conventionally those associated to musical savants or professional musicians.

Measurability here becomes critical. While Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) showed evidence of neural trauma, there was no real evidence that his brain has an innate organizing capability for conventional harmonic systems or a powerful memory for even his own music. He did not seem to be able to rapidly encode new musical materials and learn pieces by ear instantly. Arguably, these critiques of his abilities have to do with the question of whether Derek qualifies as a 'Savant'. That being said, it is not known whether Derek even has synesthesia. So what does the scientific literature have to say about this case? Firstly, a variety of musical synesthedes are known to exist (Beeli et al., 2005). They do not necessarily qualify as musical savants. The term savant derives from "Idiot-Savant," which is defined as "a person who is considered to be mentally handicapped but displays brilliance in a specific area, esp. one involving memory" by Apple's dictionary. As far as definitions go, it seems this case would not apply.

Clearly, as a professionally trained musician I am skeptical of Derek's claims. While his skills appear to have been acquired without previous experience on the piano, for which he has witnesses to attest to, they do not necessarily represent the extremely organized memory for hierarchical pitch structures that are demonstrated by savants who have autism and blindness, or mental retardation (Heaton, 2003; Miller, 1989). He displays the ability to do some fairly complicated motor skills related to technique, such as arpeggio and open-spaced harmonies. However, the harmonies he uses are 'modern' in approach and do not necessarily fall into conventional harmonic structures, by which to say that tonality is not adhered to in a form that demands an obviously strong intentionality. After an improvisation, Derek stated that it was "just like I heard it in my head," yet there is no real way for him to prove that this is true. This begs the question, is he lying about his ability? Had he been practicing his piano arpeggios in secret? Let's assume he is being truthful about these black and white blocks being able to internally represent known pitch and rhythmic values. Let's also assume that he can predictably translate this internal representation into a piano performance and had no piano experience before his TBI. Does this skill qualify as a case of an acquired musical savant? Certainly, it would be synesthesia but of course, his acquisition of the piano skills is still to be answered. These motor-skills are the most convincing of his abilities.

Derek does not seem like a savant in the conventional sense but if he is in fact telling the truth, it implies that there maybe musical capabilities deep within all people that are inhibited, unless certain parts of the inhibitory system are shutdown. In the case of damaged inhibitory system, the downside would be that certain information could be made to process uncontrollably in the mind. This is would be true in Derek's case. To me, this processing also relates to the strong sensory overload and constant bombardment of stimulation that is associated with autism and musical savants. More poignantly, it reflects the itch and compulsion that leads to the necessity for self-expression in all artists.

Beeli, G., Esslen, M. & Jäncke, L. (2003). Synaesthesia: When coloured sounds taste sweet. Nature, 434, 38.

Miller, P. (2003). Pitch memory, labeling and disembedding in autism. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 543-551.

Miller, L. K. (1989). Musical savants: Exceptional skill in the mentally retarded. Hillsdale, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Ramachandran, V. S. (2001). Synaesthesia – A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 3-34.


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