Hit me Einstein, one more time!
May 19, 2012 5:51 AM   Subscribe

Ok, car battery, cordless drill, fine copper wire. Be back in a minute, suckers.
posted by Huck500 at 5:58 AM on May 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

Reminds me of a story we ran on Escape Pod a while ago. I knew even at the time that research like this had been or was being carried out somewhere, but it's interesting to read how it's progressing.
posted by Scattercat at 6:18 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Treffert's "genetic memory" isn't much of a theory (Lamarkism?). Our brains learn the rules of music and drawing as a child. The bump on the head just rewires that knowledge directly to our fingers (that's my theory).
posted by bhnyc at 6:18 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wait a minute. Are you telling me The Flintstones was right?
posted by ob1quixote at 6:30 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Genetic memory certainly exists in some form, or there'd be no channel for instinct (or the hardwired rules for language, which certainly are present -- language is not random by any stretch of the imagination). The memories aren't going to be picturesque sequences like in Assassins Creed, but what exactly do you think the universal fears of spiders, snakes, and height are?

Lamarckianism is mostly discredited through its political abuses (lots of people were killed in the name of it). Scientifically, in this epigenetic era, a lot of assumptions are being revisited.
posted by effugas at 6:31 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

A series of electromagnetic pulses were being directed into my frontal lobes, but I felt nothing. Snyder instructed me to draw something. ''What would you like to draw?'' he said merrily. ''A cat? You like drawing cats? Cats it is.''


Two minutes after I started the first drawing, I was instructed to try again. After another two minutes, I tried a third cat, and then in due course a fourth. Then the experiment was over, and the electrodes were removed. I looked down at my work. The first felines were boxy and stiffly unconvincing. But after I had been subjected to about 10 minutes of transcranial magnetic stimulation, their tails had grown more vibrant, more nervous; their faces were personable and convincing. They were even beginning to wear clever expressions.

We need to find the subject. Draws cats when subjected to electric shocks? The subject needs Metafilter, and Metafilter need him/her!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:33 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

K Therapy for the common man.
posted by michaelh at 6:57 AM on May 19, 2012

Lamarckianism is mostly discredited through its political abuses (lots of people were killed in the name of it)

Uh, cite? I thought eugenics (which I guess you mean?) was based on Darwinism.
posted by iotic at 7:31 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is the first time I have ever thought that brain damage sounded appealing.
posted by polywomp at 7:32 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

but what exactly do you think the universal fears of spiders, snakes, and height are?

Are those instincts or learned cultural fears?

I don't know much about genetics, but maybe someone does... do we know whether or not there's a mechanism to pass an experience or memory to one's DNA? I would think that instinct is a behavior that was the result of a random mutation that was then selected for, and isn't a behavior that was learned, recorded into DNA, then passed on.
posted by Huck500 at 7:33 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

This kind of gives me hope that these sorts of idiots are in a win/win situation.
posted by michaelh at 8:08 AM on May 19, 2012

BONK! Come on! BONK!
posted by Trochanter at 8:18 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's Terry Pratchett's retrophrenology, just waiting to come to life!

Personally, as a writer of fiction, I don't believe there's a switch that could be turned to make me any better at what I do; we all have to get there the hard way. But if there was a blow or a shock that would rob me of my interest in sleep, fun and/or human contact, I'd get there a hell of a lot faster.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:46 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wisconsin psychiatrist Darold Treffert keeps a registry of known savants as part of his research on the subject.

There's really no way this doesn't end with Treffert assembling a team to save the world.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:49 AM on May 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

The piano playing guy doesn't make any sense to me. I can understand (in a not very strict sense) it if he were to suddenly have an increased ability to hear music. Like being permanently really high all the time. Like his brain now just locks onto it and he hears it in the minutest detail, feels 'inside the music,' and sees his little squares that he sees. And I can see how that would increase one's ability to understand how music works.

But I fail to understand how he could suddenly understand how a piano keyboard is arranged if he didn't already know this before. That would be (broadly) like waking up and knowing a foreign language you've never known anything about before. Does he have a genetic memory of how to play piano? What if he had sat down with a saxophone and its 20+ keys and requisite embouchure? Would he intuit that?

And that's pretty massive hyperbole by the writer of the article to say he is 'a master pianist at 40'. His accident was in 2006, so by now he has had several years to practice. The amount of good that he is is quite achievable for someone who has been practicing for several years.

From this piece: '! As I shut my eyes, I found these black and white structures moving from left to right, which in fact would represent in my mind, a fluid and continuous stream of musical notation'.

The wording of that sentence leaves me totally without understanding what he is talking about. It sounds like saying that either he suddenly could visualize and sight-read standard musical notation (without prior musical training, as is repeatedly implied and stated) or that his brain suddenly and automatically either recalls heard music or compiles completely new music, then translates that into some sort of black and white notation system of his own brain's subconscious creation, and then he is able to close his eyes and translate this notation (never before seen by him or anyone) into physical movements over a keyboard he does not understand the layout of, producing music.

I don't doubt that he woke up with an increased ability to understand and learn the piano, but to say he woke up and was a master pianist stinks of opportunistic exaggeration to me.

Get off my lawn, savant!
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:36 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

But I fail to understand how he could suddenly understand how a piano keyboard is arranged if he didn't already know this before.

Eh, there's a system and logic to that arrangement. It sounds like his brain was knocked into instinctively understanding it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:42 AM on May 19, 2012

So have we determined the right spot to tap with a ball peen hammer if we're trying to induce, say, just general competence at life and stuff, not necessarily savantry?

I'm, uh, asking for a friend.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:02 AM on May 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

I would very much like to apply for a grant where I get to hit people in the head with a mallet. You know, for Science.
posted by dejah420 at 10:42 AM on May 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

But I fail to understand how he could suddenly understand how a piano keyboard is arranged if he didn't already know this before

The piano keyboard is a repeated extremely simple pattern; one could programmatically generate an *infinite* piano from very few statements. There is almost nothing to understand about piano layout. Moreover, as with many things designed by humans (as opposed to evolved contraptions) a trivial inspection yields the principles intuitively. Have you ever taken anything apart? The workings of even apparently complex mechanical devices are usually quite obvious and predictable once you get past the first impression.

What is interesting is the mastery of interaction -- muscle memory and the physical interaction with the piano, not understanding the layout.
posted by rr at 10:51 AM on May 19, 2012

It's surprising the article didn't mention Tony Cicoria. His experience sounds more plausible to me than Derek Amato's. Cicoria, after being struck by lightning developed an intense interest in piano music. That led him to lessons, hard practice and eventual mastery. It wasn't the kind of instant miracle claimed by Amato.
posted by storybored at 10:59 AM on May 19, 2012

Paging Dr. Richard Nemur and Dr. Anna Straus...
posted by peagood at 11:14 AM on May 19, 2012

It's customary in the military to begin training by breaking your recruits' ego. I guess the idea is to induce a sort of Stockholm Syndrome where the skills they are to learn are the only sources of ego-fuel they can get, and so they devote absolutely everything to those.

I imagine that savant-damage works on a similar principle.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:18 AM on May 19, 2012

You can't hear much of piano-savant's music in the linked video, but what I do hear sounds more like "noodling" than purposeful music. He's sorta randomly banging on notes that vaguely go together. It's interesting that he has some sense of which notes fit together and which ones don't, but it's not like the head trauma turned him into Mozart or something.
posted by straight at 12:44 PM on May 19, 2012

Blind Tom.
posted by tspae at 1:03 PM on May 19, 2012

A friend of mine knew a guy in high school who got thrown from the top of a moving vehicle, and when he got out of the hospital was a chemistry genius. By this same friend's report, the guy continued to be a dumbass in virtually every other aspect of life and learning, however.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:25 PM on May 19, 2012

The last time I took acid, it was the strongest dose I'd ever taken- and what astonished me was when I played the piano for a while during the height of it, how easy it was. I mean, there are only 88 keys! And more than I've ever had before I had stunningly perfect sense of pitch, like the "gulfs" between semitones seemed enormous, and it struck me that I'd have to be a fool to not hear the difference between C# and D, seeming as distant as a bassoon and a piccolo. I then was sight-reading a Beethoven sonata with complete ease (I suppose the unreliable narrator part says I could have been terrible, but my friend dropped by with some takeout around then, and later said I seemed both lucid, and was playing fine; then again, if I were really in a state of flow, I'd have pulled out the sheet music for the Ossia and Scherzando of Rachmaninov's 3rd).

The part I remember distinctly is how I was looking at the page, and the notes seemed HUGE, and I just knew where to go; my brain was reading in chunks, and my hands were effortless in their motion. I was hearing the sound in my head just ahead of playing, and I didn't have to think at all- I wasn't in my own way. It felt like my hands just moved, and I couldn't imagine moving them any differently- it just was. It's hard to describe as a memory of a headspace I'm not in any more, but it's what I imagine the truly gifted pianists are like all the time: it's easy to the point of mindlessness; that playing seemed as easy as walking, you don't really think, and you can't imagine your feet not just finding their way.

It was awesome, and other than the fact that acid takes two days out of your life (the day after to recuperate), the psychological/ego terrors later in the trip and the exhausting length of time you're high, and the day-to-day pressures of a job, a mortgage, etc... I'd totally be doing this as frequently as possible, to see if I could remember on a permanent basis to be how I was then.

Separately, during a suicide attempt many years ago, I'd taken two boxes of sleeping pills, and while in the hospital I was hallucinating, and watching what used to be my ridiculously good visual memory disappear... I went from having the ability to clearly visualize pages of a book I'd recently read in the air in front of me, to feeling like my visual memory was stuck behind the back of my head. My memory was I guess near-eidetic up through my teen years- but after that night, it was gone and hasn't been back.

I mention these two things to note that the brain is an unbelievable computer, and when you think of things most people struggle to do... they seem so simple. We can hear, we can see, we can imagine, we can dream, and we have fingers... it almost seems like we all should be terrifically gifted piano players, or free-hand drawers, or what-have-you. So why aren't we?
posted by hincandenza at 1:47 PM on May 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Treffert thinks this could be the result of something called genetic memory

Lol, so a blow to the head activates your "Other Memory"? Alright, just don't listen to the things Baron Harkonen is telling you...
posted by Chekhovian at 2:06 PM on May 19, 2012

The piano keyboard is a repeated extremely simple pattern; one could programmatically generate an *infinite* piano from very few statements.

I wrote that comment after hitting my head, it must have been too brilliant to make sense.
posted by TheRedArmy at 2:45 PM on May 19, 2012

But seriously, yes it's obvious that a keyboard goes from low to high. Less obvious is how to use it in an effective way, understanding harmony, understanding fingering, pedaling, dynamics, etc. I just wonder how much of it was instant miraculous knowledge and how much of it was more along the lines of, "Hey, I'm fiddling on a piano and coming across things that sound cool in a way I've never noticed before," and then practicing.

I'm guessing he didn't improvise a 4 part fugue on his first go. And all the text and video I've seen about him are mums the word on any prior musical knowledge.

I just get tired of it when cool stuff happens but people can't help themselves from attaching as much bullshit to it as they can get away with to get on the nightly news and get a book deal, or whatever.
posted by TheRedArmy at 2:55 PM on May 19, 2012

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