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Personality and the Brain, Part 6

Derek's personality changed after a dive into the shallow end of a pool

Derek Amato, used with permission
Source: Derek Amato, used with permission

Leigh Erceg’s personality changed partly as a result of a decreased ability to feel emotions. Sometimes changes in personality take place as a result of an increased ability to feel emotions. Such was the case for Denver-native Derek Amato.

One fall day in 2006, Derek got together with some friends for a pool party. They started playing football in the tiny back yard. Misjudging the depth of the pool, thrill-seeking Derek told his friends to toss him the ball and jumped high over the water to catch it. He crashed headfirst into the hard bottom of the pool’s shallow end. “I didn’t lose consciousness right away,” Derek told us when my collaborator Kristian Marlow and I first talked to him. “I came out of the water and immediately knew I was hurt. I thought my ears were bleeding and I couldn’t hear anything. My friends were talking, but I could only see their lips move.”

Derek collapsed before his friends could drag him out of the pool. At the hospital he was diagnosed with a concussion and sent home to rest. “I think they sent me home just because I was being an asshole,” Derek grinned. “You know, when you have a head trauma, you get rather frustrated and your triggers are short. I was pretty adamant that I was okay, and I just wanted to go. I actually thought I was in spring training in Arizona for baseball.” (Derek had been to Arizona for spring training—but years prior to the accident.)

Derek slept almost nonstop the following four days. On the fifth day he woke up and felt like he was okay. Despite vast bruising—and despite thinking he was still in Arizona for spring training—he went to his best friend Rick’s house.

Derek had never played the piano before. But for some reason he felt a strong urge to play the one he knew was in the house. Followed by Rick, he rushed upstairs and sat down on the wooden bench. His friend had no idea what was going on. Neither did he. “I just felt this weird energy that I wanted to go fumble around with it,” Derek recalled. “I had no idea my hands would know where to go.” He put his hands to the piano keys and played like a virtuoso.

“I just sat down and played intensely. It wasn’t like someone playing ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’,” Derek told us with an unexpected insouciance. “It was like Beethoven snuck into my bloodline. All of a sudden someone turned on a switch. I played a classically structured piece. I kept going for six hours.”

When Derek finally turned around and looked at Rick, his friend was in tears. “We didn’t know what to think,” Derek recalled. “We didn’t know if God was in the room. We didn’t know if we should have another beer. We didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

After telling some friends about his sudden ability to play the piano, one of them shared a few amateur recordings of his music with friends in the Los Angeles music business. Taken aback by what they heard, the L.A. insiders flew him out and put him on stage. The audience was blown away. The organizers were dumbfounded. The guy with zero previous experience really could play. He wasn’t making it up. This was Derek’s first flirtation with stardom, and he enjoyed the attention.

But this was only the beginning of the changes that Derek would undergo. Like Leigh Erceg, Derek had developed an obsession with artistic expression. In Leigh’s case it was drawing and poetry. For Derek, it was music, specifically the piano. But his personality had changed in countless other ways. For years after his injury he was struggling to understand himself. “I was trying to get a grip on these changes that really kind of designed a whole new person,” Derek said.

Among the many changes in personality he had undergone, Derek had become much more agreeable than he used to be. The six facets of this dimension of personality include: Trust, morality, altruism, straightforwardness, modesty and tender-mindedness. Among those, Derek’s newfound tender-mindedness and empathy for other people stand out. He reports often feeling other people’s pain in just the way that our research participant Megan does.

But mirror-touch synesthesia is not the only form of synesthesia Derek has. After his accident he started seeing black and white squares going from left to right, a continuous stream of musical notation. “It’s like a ticker tape rolling around my brain,” Derek explained. The black and white moving squares are a visualization of his obsession with music. They give rise to a pulsation under his skin and drive his urge to get relief through playing.

There has also been a radical increase in Derek’s degree of neuroticism. The six facets of neuroticism are anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness and vulnerability. For Derek, the sudden anxiety is the most notable change in this dimension. In the past he didn’t have an ounce of fear in him. He was always seeking new adventures. While he is still adventurous, he no longer walks calmly through life. He is constantly plagued by a nervous energy that he can only get relief from through playing. He rarely sleeps more than a few hours. Then he wakes up and just has to get going.

You can read the next chapter of this true tale tomorrow. Part 5 can be found here. For further information about this and similar cases of extraordinary human ability, you can read our book The Superhuman Mind.

Penguin, used with permission
Source: Penguin, used with permission
More from Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D
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