In 2002, two men savagely attacked Jason Padgett outside a karaoke bar, leaving him with a severe concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder. But the incident also turned Padgett into a mathematical genius who sees the world through the lens of geometry.
Padgett, a furniture salesman from Tacoma, Wash., who had very little interest in academics, developed the ability to visualize complex mathematical objects and physics concepts intuitively. The injury, while devastating, seems to have unlocked part of his brain that makes everything in his world appear to have a mathematical structure.
"I see shapes and angles everywhere in real life" — from the geometry of a rainbow, to the fractals in water spiraling down a drain, Padgett told Live Science. "It's just really beautiful." [Album: The World's Most Beautiful Equations]
Padgett, who just published a memoir with Maureen Seaberg called "Struck by Genius" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), is one of a rare set of individuals with acquired savant syndrome, in which a normal person develops prodigious abilities after a severe injury or disease. Other people have developed remarkable musical or artistic abilities, but few people have acquired mathematical faculties like Padgett's.
Now, researchers have figured out which parts of the man's brain were rejiggered to allow for such savant skills, and the findings suggest such skills may lie dormant in all human brains.
'Struck by genius'
Before the injury, Padgett was a self-described jock and partyer. He hadn't progressed beyond than pre-algebra in his math studies. "I cheated on everything, and I never cracked a book," he said.
But all that would change the night of his attack. Padgett recalls being knocked out for a split second and seeing a bright flash of light. Two guys started beating him, kicking him in the head as he tried to fight back. Later that night, doctors diagnosed Padgett with a severe concussion and a bleeding kidney, and sent him home with pain medications, he said.
Soon after the attack, Padgett suffered from PTSD and debilitating social anxiety. But at the same time, he noticed that everything looked different. He describes his vision as "discrete picture frames with a line connecting them, but still at real speed." If you think of vision as the brain taking pictures all the time and smoothing them into a video, it's as though Padgett sees the frames without the smoothing. In addition, "everything has a pixilated look," he said.
With Padgett's new vision came an astounding mathematical drawing ability. He started sketching circles made of overlapping triangles, which helped him understand the concept of pi, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. There's no such thing as a perfect circle, he said, which he knows because he can always see the edges of a polygon that approximates the circle. [Gallery: See Padgett's Amazing Mathematical Drawings]
Padgett dislikes the concept of infinity, because he sees every shape as a finite construction of smaller and smaller units that approach what physicists refer to as the Planck length, thought to be the shortest measurable length.