Essay

Matthew Whitaker only has to hear a song once to make it his own. At age 11, when most kids are playing on the playground, this gifted piano prodigy was playing on international stages, and now, at just 19 years old, he’s won more awards than most musicians get in a lifetime. Whitaker makes it look easy at the piano, but in life, he’s faced some very difficult challenges. He was born three months premature with severe health problems, including a disease that can lead to blindness, and doctors warned his parents that he might not live. Doctors were not able to save his sight, but Whitaker thrived, and soon it was clear that he was a tremendously talented toddler. As Whitaker grew, so did his talent, and his blindness never got in the way of his progress or prowess on the piano. His skill soon caught the eye of Dr. Charles Limb, a neurologist who is also a musician. Dr. Limb, who focuses his neurological research on understanding why some individuals can be exceptionally creative, was fascinated by Whitaker’s talent and wanted to gain knowledge on how his brain worked, so he reached out to the family.  With the permission of the musician and his parents, Dr. Limb scanned Whitaker’s brain with an MRI machine and observed how Whitaker’s brain responded to different kinds of recorded sounds. When Whitaker was listening to a lecture, the area of the brain known as the visual cortex showed no signs of activity, which makes sense given that his brain doesn’t receive any visual stimuli. But when Whitaker listened to music, his entire visual cortex unexpectedly lit up. This means that when Whitaker is listening to a song, he’s using much more of his brain than the average person does. According to Dr. Limb, this discovery may shed some light on Whitaker’s musical brilliance. the neuroscientist theorizes that, in the absence of visual stimuli, the disused part of Whitaker’s brain became rewired to perceive music. This is a powerful demonstration of how adaptable the human brain can be, as well as an inspiring example of how challenges may give rise to people’s greatest talents

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