May 14, 2014
Brain Trauma Uncovers Genius
Is there a little bit of genius hidden inside all our brains waiting to get out? If my brain is anything to go by, it’s buried pretty deep. I certainly can’t find it, and I am sure most of us feel the same way. Occasionally, however, people suddenly reveal their inner genius as a result of some kind of trauma or injury to the brain. One such man is Jason Padgett from Tacoma, Washington, who suddenly discovered an incredible aptitude for high-level mathematics. Jason’s story is remarkable. To reach his new-found status as a mathematical genius, he had to go through a truly horrible experience.
He was an ordinary guy and worked as a furniture salesman. By his own admission, he was a man who would rather party than push a pen. In his new book, Struck by Genius, co-written by Maureen Seaberg, he says that he struggled to get past pre-algebra in school and claims “I cheated on everything, and never cracked a book.” That would all change one night in 2002. Jason was leaving a karaoke bar when two thugs jumped him and viciously beat him up. He can remember being knocked out and seeing a blinding light. He suffered a severe concussion and kidney damage. The experience left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He became anxious in social situations and was no longer the carefree party animal he once was. But somewhere in the depths of Jason’s brain, the injuries he sustained had rewired the circuits. The genie was out of the lamp.
The world began to look different. What Jason saw was like watching the individual frames of a movie, rather than the smoothed-out motion that the rest of us see. “Everything had a pixelated look,” he said. Beautiful, complex images began to appear in his mind, reflecting the new visually fragmented world in which he now lived. He felt a compulsion to put these images down on paper. His highly complex drawings consisted of interlocking geometric patterns. This is the world he sees – an intricate interplay of complex components. Even circles are made up of polygons in Jason’s eyes. With this vision came a deep understanding of complex geometry and maths, but only after another strange event. A physicist happened to see Jason drawing in a mall and, recognizing the latent genius in the images, suggested he take some kind of mathematical training. Now Jason can handle top-level equations and number theory and has gone back to college to develop his new passion.
Jason’s story is rare, but not unique. He has what is known as “acquired savant syndrome.” It reminded me of another remarkable life-changing trauma. In his excellent book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks tells the story of a man who, in the days before mobile phones, was calling his wife from a public phone booth when it was struck by lightning. He recovered from the shock, but soon discovered a passion for classical piano music, even though he had little interest in music before his trauma. After taking piano lessons, he rapidly developed into a concert level pianist. The same hard wiring process that Jason’s assailants had unwittingly unleashed had uncovered a musical genius.
Maybe we all have a little bit of the Einstein inside us, or perhaps a precocious undiscovered talent. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take a lightning bolt or a savage beating to unearth it.
Image Credit: Thinkstock