Kudos for 60 Minutes reporting the story of Matthew Whitaker, complete with a demonstration of his musical genius, and of his congenial personality. Matthew arrived in the world with only a 50/50 chance of survival. He weighed not much more than a pound. His visual apparatus was damaged to the point of leaving him blind. A rough beginning.
But Matthew had two things going for him, wise and loving parents and a spectacular musical genius. He was also lucky to have had an especially good music teacher who recognized the rarity of his gift. Matthew immediately knew music, and once he got used to his mastery of basics, he took off on his own, improvising, inventing, and reinventing with all the energy and range of jazz. He’s been playing professionally since he was eleven years old.
How to explain this? Where did the sudden, superlative gift of music come from?
Not surprising that some scientists might be curious about Matthew. Charles Limb, a neuroscientist and himself a musician, persuaded Matthew to let his team do MRI scans of his brain while he listened to and made music. They were looking for any notable changes in the brain correlated with Matthew while in his unique musical modality. The results say something about creativity but also something about the power of mind over matter.
First, Dr. Limb and his team sought to see the prodigy’s brain in action while listening to people engage in everyday talk. Nothing extraordinary was observed going on in his brain. His visual cortex showed no activity, consistent with Matthew being blind. Now they wanted to observe his brain while he was in his element, making or listening to music, so they switched to a soundtrack featuring one of his favorite bands.
A large panel showing activity in different parts of the brain suddenly lit up all over.
Dr. Limb states that Matthew’s “entire brain is stimulated by music.” This says something about excellence in any sphere, which tends to be an all-encompassing enterprise. In a phrase, one has to be all in. Dr. Limb has something else to say about what Matthew does when rapt in and 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."
Clearly, the musician appropriates the part of his brain that usually works for vision. Now that’s a neat trick! One qualification: Limb writes as if the “brain” does all this, but in fact it is Matthew’s mind, his love of music, his brilliance as a musician that changes the normal function of the brain, first by activating and using his whole brain and also by taking over a part of the brain normally associated with sight. Genius has a biochemical signature but is rooted in and driven by the whole person, especially the whole gamut of one’s mental life.
Apparently, we harbor within us the power to remold the very structure and function of our brains! A scientific literature illustrates the power of our minds, rightly deployed, to remold our brains and bodies and therefore the world around us. See, for example, a spirited book by J. Schwartz and S. Begley that deals with Matthew’s specialty—mind reshaping brain function. It is called The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. The title contains two big ideas outside the mainstream, first that our minds can exert physical force, and second that our brains are more plastic and malleable to mental influence than formerly assumed.
Now if we can mold our brains like a sculptor molds a statue from some clay, we must also be able to mold our lives creatively and for the better. That is an idea worth pondering and befriending. The trick is to crack open the vaults of our potential so it spills into our actual lives. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Matthew Whitaker’s fabulous musical capers, but all sorts of possibilities for breakthrough and epiphany remain for us who are just plodding on the path toward enlightmentment.