Matthew Whitaker: Blind musical genius who is being studied by scientists to understand his brain

According to experts, when he listens to music, his entire brain gets stimulated by it. He drew the attention of neuroscientist Charles Limb, who studies the brains of creative people to understand what makes them special.


                            Matthew Whitaker: Blind musical genius who is being studied by scientists to understand his brain
(Getty Images)

Matthew Whitaker is visually challenged, but his eye for music can rival those of his contemporaries. The Jazz musician can twist melodies, craft complex harmonies and improvise at lightning speed, according to CBS News. He can take any song and improvise it on spot, giving it his own spin.

These talents have piqued the interest of a scientist, who has been studying his brain to figure out his genius.

Who is Matthew Whitaker?

Whittaker was a preterm baby. Born at 24 weeks, he endured many complications, including a condition that leads to blindness: Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). "ROP is a potentially blinding eye disorder that primarily affects premature infants weighing about 2¾ pounds (1250 grams) or less that are born before 31 weeks of gestation (a full-term pregnancy has a gestation of 38–42 weeks)," says National Eye Institute.

This disorder — which usually develops in both eyes — is one of the most common causes of visual loss in childhood and can lead to lifelong vision impairment and blindness.

To fix his sight, Whittaker underwent 11 surgeries. "We just felt like he was going through too much," his father, Moses Whitaker, told CBS news. "We were going through too much. Because the doctors weren't seeing it was getting any better. We just said, 'You know what? That's enough. We'll just deal with it as it is," he added.

Whittaker developed a liking for music at a young age. He began crawling towards music, sometimes sliding up to the speaker to feel the music, his parents said. He was given a keyboard at the age of three.

At the age of 11, Whitaker began performing around the world. Since then, he has played in more than 200 clubs and concert halls around the world, CBS News reported.

His music teacher taught him to read braille music, he learned how to feel, read and remember dots that represent the 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. (Getty Images)

What is the science behind his genius?

His talents drew the attention of Dr. Charles Limb -- a neuroscientist and a musician. He studies the brains of creative people to understand what makes them special. "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 trying to answer the question," Limb told CBS News.

To understand how Whittaker's improvises music, Dr. Limb scanned his brain using an MRI, which can help scientists understand the wiring of his brain.

What do Whittaker's brain scans say?

Whittaker was made to listen to a familiar soundtrack as scientists imaged his brain. His MRI scans showed intense activity in a part of the brain that handles visual information: the visual cortex. "Pretty remarkable. His entire brain is stimulated by music," Limb said. "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."

"And so it's sort of borrowing that part of the brain and rewiring it to help him hear music," Limb added.

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