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Stroke of Genius: How Derek Amato Became a Musical Savant

Derek Amato is one of only a few dozen known "sudden savants."
Derek Amato
Derek Amato is one of only a few dozen known "sudden savants."

In 2006, Derek Amato suffered a major concussion from diving into a shallow swimming pool. When he woke up in the hospital, he was different. He discovered he was really good a playing piano. Yes, we're serious. Derek is one of just a few dozen known "sudden savants" or "accidental geniuses"—people who survive severe head injuries and come out the other side with special gifts for music or math or art. We were skeptical, so we brought Derek into a studio and asked him to play. He can't read music or even play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," but the music he improvises is beautiful. In this episode, Shankar talks with Derek and two experts to try to understand his musical transformation.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman, Chris Benderev, Jenny Schmidt, and Renee Klahr. Our Supervising Producer is Tara Boyle. To subscribe to our newsletter, click here. You can also f ollow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk, @maggiepenman , @cbndrv, @jennyjennyschmi, @reneeklahr, and @taranoelleboyle. Listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

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Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Chris Benderev is a founding producer of and also reports stories for NPR's documentary-style podcast, Embedded. He's driven into coal mines, watched as a town had to shutter its only public school after 100 years in operation, and, recently, he's followed the survivors of a mass shooting for two years to understand what happens after they fade from the news. He's also investigated the pseudoscience behind a national chain of autism treatment facilities. As a producer, he's made stories about ISIS, voting rights and Donald Trump's business history. Earlier in his career, he was a producer at NPR's Weekend Edition, Morning Edition, Hidden Brain and the TED Radio Hour.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.