The Mysterious Gift Of Musical Savants

<b>Lesley Stahl</b> Checks In On A Boy With An Extraordinary Musical Talent

This story originally aired on Oct. 23, 2005.

The human mind can be mystifying in its capacity to accommodate both disability and genius in the same person, as we found in a little boy named Rex.

Rex was born blind, with brain damage so severe it looked as though he would never walk, talk, or do much of anything. And yet he has a talent few of us can imagine. To understand Rex's brain would be to unlock mysteries of language, memory, and music.

Correspondent Lesley Stahl first met Rex and his mother Cathleen three years ago.

Rex Lewis-Clack at age 8 was a study in contrasts. Blind and full of enthusiasm, Rex was unable to dress himself, or even carry on a basic conversation.

But with everything Rex can't do, he can instantly identify any note that is played for him. It's a talent only one in 10,000 people have.

But that was just the beginning of Rex's gifts at the piano.

Stahl played Rex a song he had never heard – "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" – with Rex's piano teacher singing along. Despite not being able to see the keys, Rex was able to play the song himself after a single hearing.

Rex is a musical savant, one of a handful of people in the world who share a mysterious combination of blindness, mental disability, and musical genius.

But away from the piano, Rex was a different child, easily upset and confused by basic concepts. Despite his agility at the piano, he still got lost in his small apartment.

"He basically gets lost in space," his mother, Cathleen Lewis explained. "Even when I'm directing him, he often turns the wrong way."

Does damage in one part of the brain somehow enable brilliance to develop in another part of the brain? Do these abilities lie dormant somewhere within all of us?

The savant gift remains a mystery, which drew 60 Minutes back to Rex, two years later, to see how he had progressed.

Last spring, just shy of his 10th birthday, Rex was as charming and excitable as ever and just as hard to fathom, as when Stahl asked him what he likes to do.

When asked if he had ever been in a swimming pool, Rex said no.

"Oh, we have a swimming pool at home, Rex," his mother said. "You swim a lot."

"So, you do swim?" Stahl asked. "Yes," Rex replied.

At the piano, Rex has improved dramatically. He works diligently, and has moved beyond repeating music – into the realm of genuine creativity.

In one exercise, one of his two new teachers, Sara Banta, makes up a run of music, and Rex has to instantly offer a musical response. "Some days we get a volley that goes on for a long time, you know, like a tennis volley," explains Banta.

The exercise is real improvisation.

Asked whether he is just making up his musical responses, Rex said, "Yes, Lesley," with a laugh.