(TMU) — A blind piano prodigy has met major success in his life, entertaining audiences across the world since he was 11. And now scientists are studying his brain to find out what exactly makes him so good.
When Matthew Whitaker was born prematurely at 24 weeks, he was not only blind but he had a series of health problems and his parents were told that he had less than a 50 percent chance of survival. Before he even reached the age of two Whitaker had to undergo 11 surgeries.
However, not only did Whitaker manage to survive but by the age of three he was already able to skillfully play the piano and even write his own songs—without even needing a teacher.
Now 18, the Hackensack, New Jersey, native is now a universally praised tunesmith and jazz pianist who has performed at prestigious venues including the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Apollo Theater. The virtuoso can even play anything by ear, ranging from Beyonce or Dvorak.
And now, the prodigiously talented musician is the focus of a new medical study that seeks to find out how exactly the brains of brilliant musicians work and how they are different from those of average people.
Neurologist and fellow musician Dr. Charles Limb has headed the research, conducting MRI exams on Whitaker both while he listened to music and while he played the keyboard.
Limb told 60 Minutes:
“I think anytime somebody watches Matthew play piano the first thing that you think is, ‘How does he do that?’
Except rather than just wondering, I’m actually trying to answer the question.”
What Dr. Limb found out was shocking: Whitaker’s brain had apparently repurposed the visual cortex in order to develop other neurological pathways. When Whitaker listens to his favorite bands, his visual cortex is activated.
“Because he is blind we looked at his visual cortex. And we didn’t see any significant activity there at all [during a dull lecture].
Then we switched the soundtrack for him and we put on a band that he knows quite well… This is what changes in his brain.
It seems like his brain is taking that part of the tissue that’s not being stimulated by sight and using it … to perceive music.
It’s sort of borrowing that part of the brain and rewiring it to help him hear music.”
Whitaker found the findings interesting but was unsurprised that his brain became illuminated during the scans whenever he listened to music. He simply acknowledged:
“I love music.”