Matthew Whitaker is a blind piano prodigy who’s been entertaining audiences since he was 11 — and scientists want to learn what makes him so good.
As “60 Minutes” reported, Whitaker is at the centre of a medical study exploring an intriguing question: How do the brains of exceptionally talented musicians work, and do they differ from those of average people?
Whitaker was featured on Sunday’s edition of “60 Minutes”, with Dr. Charles Limb discussing why the 18-year-old pianist is the ideal subject to help answer this question.
“I think anytime somebody watches Matthew play piano the first thing that you think is, How does he do that?” Limb told “60 Minutes”. “Except rather than just wondering, I’m actually trying to answer the question.”
Born prematurely at 24 weeks, Whitaker weighed less than two pounds at birth and was beset by a series of health maladies.
His mother May Whitaker was informed he had a 50-50 chance of survival. “I think at the time, I didn’t think he was gonna make it,” she admitted. “So it was, you know, just very scary.”
As Limb explained, he’s been using MRI scans to shed light on what’s going on inside Whitaker’s brain.
“Because he is blind we looked at his visual cortex. And we didn’t see any significant activity there at all,” Limb explained of Whitaker’s brain activity while listening to a “boring” 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.”
What Limb discovered is that Whitaker’s “entire brain is stimulated by music. His visual cortex is activated throughout. It seems like his brain is taking that part of the tissue that’s not being stimulated by sight and using it or maybe helping him to perceive music with it.”
As he explained, Whitaker’s brain is “sort of borrowing that part of the brain and rewiring it to help him hear music.”
You can watch the entire “60 Minutes” segment on Whitaker right here.