Please confess that after seeing the Matrix you have at some point fantasized about being able to see the world through the lens of a never ending series of descending green numbers that affords you total control over your surroundings. Or have I just revealed my own personal shortcomings and visions of grandeur?
While not exactly in the manner the fictional Matrix character Neo is able to see cascading 1s and 0s, Jason Padgett is able to see the underlying mathematical structure of life in the form of geometric shapes.
From simple man to extraordinary man
In 2002, Padgett was the unfortunate victim of a vicious attack outside a karaoke bar. After being beaten and kicked repeatedly in the head and body by two men, Padgett experienced a severe concussion and post traumatic stress disorder. During his recovery, Padgett soon realized his perception of the world had changed drastically.
Prior to sustaining a brain injury, Jason Padgett was a furniture salesman from Tacoma, Washington, who had no interest in academics. “I cheated on everything, and I never cracked a book.” Padgett even self-describes his earlier life as being nothing more than a jock and partier.
After the attack and during the process of recovery, Padgett recalls suddenly seeing “discrete picture frames with a line connecting them, but still at real speed” where “everything has a pixilated look.” In fact, normal vision consists of the brain taking multiple pictures of what we see around us and blending them together into a smooth, continuous visual experience. In Padgett’s case, his brain does not connect the frames.
Acquiring mathematical genius
With no prior experience in mathematics, Padgett initially failed to realize the full extent of his expanded mathematical powers, and settled simply on drawing the geometric shapes he saw around him. Although just short of fully realizing his mathematical genius, he quickly picked up the habit of drawing circles composed of overlapping triangles, which also helped him fathom the concept of pi and the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, concepts to which he was previously oblivious.
Although Padgett’s brain injury allowed him to draw and see complex geometric patterns, it was not until a physicist spotted him drawing these shapes in a mall that Padgett was finally motivated to pursue serious mathematical training. Thanks to the urging of this physicist, Padgett is now enrolled in college to become a number theorist.
How Padgett’s brain injury lead to genius
Given the rarity of Padgett’s condition, a team of neuroscientists have embarked on studying the exact source of Padgett’s mathematical genius. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that measures blood flow and oxygen levels in the brain, research lead Berit Brogaard, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami, scanned Padgett’s brain to determine “how he acquired his savant skills and the synesthesia that allows him to perceive mathematical formulas as geometric figures.”
The fMRI scan revealed increased activity in the left hemisphere of Padgett’s brain, which is where mathematical skills are thought to originate. Another area in Padgett’s brain that lit up was the left parietal cortex, a region responsible for integrating information coming from different senses. Brogaard’s team also used a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) as a way to pinpoint the exact location of Padgett’s synesthesia. The TMS involves directing a magnetic pulse at a desired part of the brain, which either activates or inhibits a specific region. The results of the TMS experiment showed that when zapping Padgett’s parietal cortex, his synesthesia could be turned on and off.
Brogaard goes on to explain that when sustaining a traumatic brain injury, neighboring brain cells experience a period of increased stimulation and growth, effectively changing the structure of the brain. While most cases of stimulated brain cells as a result of brain injury eventually subside, in the case of Padgett, the extra growth and activity of his brain cells have not diminished.
Do savant-like abilities exist in all of us?
According to Brogaard and his study of Padgett, the possibility of stimulating different parts of our brain to produce special mathematical and artistic abilities is very real. Of course, there are always trade-offs, like Padgett’s obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, TMS treatment offers an intriguing insight into the cognitive powers dormant or otherwise active in all of us.
To learn more about Padgett’s experience after enduring a brain injury, check out his recently published memoir called “Struck by Genius” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).