Usually the stories we hear about traumatic brain injury come in two flavors. Often the tales are those of tragedy and loss as a family copes with the premature death of a child or parent. Sometimes we are luckier and those stories show us how a person overcame their brain injury and all doubts to get something close to their old life back. But, what about a miracle talent unearthed by brain injury?
There have been anecdotes of brain injury patients suddenly understanding a language they have never spoken before, but what about the ability to play an instrument and make music? One family from Colorado says their son, Lachlan Connors, attributes his new found musical ability entirely on a concussion.
The 17-year-old junior has always been fond of music, but his talent wasn’t always evident. ABC News says Connors went to a small number of piano lessons as a small child, but when his mother asked the teacher if her son was talented the answer was a blunt “No.” He didn’t attempt to play an instrument again, until the events of one day changed Lachlan Connors’ life.
In the sixth grade Connors was knocked unconscious during a game of football. When he quickly came to, everyone assumed Connors was going to be okay. The football game resumed with Connors and everything went as normal for the next couple of days. But, soon the young boy started to experience feelings of déjà vu and panic, as well as nausea and language difficulties. Doctors believed he was suffering from epileptic seizures, but a neurologist was unable to find anything wrong.
The problems quickly grew worse. He began to hallucinate and the he continued to have seizures. Connors was barred from playing any more contact sports, and after more time in the hospital he began to recover. Without sports to occupy his time, Connors was poised to uncover his hidden talent.
Soon , Lachlan Connors began picking out chords and melodies at the piano. “He was making stuff up and it was good. He started to play chords and … as soon as he figured out the chords he could play,” his mother Elsie Hamilton told Gillian Mohney.
“I can’t do what Lachlan can do,” Hamilton said. “He can pick up an instrument and within five minutes, he’s playing it.”
Connors story isn’t as crazy as it sounds. There are numerous anecdotes out there of brain injuries uncovering a latent talent. There are even some tales of some brain injury patients suddenly speaking in foreign languages they didn’t seem to know before – though those have been heavily critiqued by the medical community. Lachlan’s experience is more easily explained.
ABC News spoke to Dr. Michael DeGeorgia, director of the Center for Neurocritical Care and a professor of neurology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. Dr. DeGeogia says it isn’t unheard of for patients with certain brain injuries such as strokes to develop a sudden artistic ability during their recovery.
One belief suggests this sudden ability comes from the frontal lobe, normally associated with inhibition control. If damaged, it can create a “disinhibition” which could cause the patients to develop an interest or skill in music or art.
DeGeorgia told Gillian Mohney, “[With] concussions we’re just starting to understand the complexity of it. We’ve underestimated the complexity of even minor concussions.”
“There’s no musical center in the brain. It’s very complex and comes from all parts of the brain,” DeGeorgia explained. “It’s possible that subtle changes … recalibrations in circuits could lead to improvement in musical skills or latent musicality.”
Another expert, professor of psychiatry and of hearing and speech science at Vanderbilt University, Steven Camarata, suggests that Lachlan Connor’s age may also have played a role in allowing him to develop the sudden ability.
“[The brain is] much more flexible than we ever imagined. A kid like this who gets his head hit and has a couple of seizures can excel at something else.” Camarata stated. “If we didn’t have that plasticity we couldn’t [recover] … From age 3 to adolescence, there’s a lot of flexibility in the brain.”
Of course the story of Lachlan Connors and his sudden musical skill is an anomaly compared to the vast majority of concussion cases. The average “minor” concussion usually doesn’t have lifelong implications for a person’s life, but every case is different. What looks like a minor brain injury could actually be something much worse.