A man became a math wiz after suffering brain injuries. Researchers think they know why.

This shows the evolution of Jason Padgett’s pi drawings. First he made the circle out of 180 triangles, then 360, then 720, as seen here. (Courtesy of Jason Padgett)
May 12, 2014

In 2002, two men 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 said. “It’s just really beautiful.”

[Album: The World’s Most Beautiful Equations]

Padgett, who last month published a memoir, “Struck by Genius,” is one of a rare group 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, and the findings suggest such skills may lie dormant in all human brains.

Before the injury, Padgett was a self-described jock and partyer. He hadn’t progressed beyond pre-algebra in his math studies. “I cheated on everything, and I never cracked a book,” he said.

A bright flash of light

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 men started beating him, then 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 experienced 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’s 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 pixelated 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.

After his injury, Padgett was drawing complex geometric shapes, but he didn’t understand the equations they represented. One day, a physicist spotted him making these drawings and urged him to pursue mathematical training. Now Padgett is a sophomore in college and an aspiring number theorist.

Padgett’s remarkable abilities garnered the interest of neuroscientists who wanted to understand how he developed them.

A team that included Berit Brogaard, a philosophy professor now at the University of Miami, scanned Padgett’s brain with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to understand how he acquired his savant skills and the synesthesia that allows him to perceive mathematical formulas as geometric figures. (Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which one sense bleeds into another.)

A rare phenomenon

“Acquired savant syndrome is very rare,” Brogaard said, adding that only 15 to 25 cases have ever been described in medical studies.

Padgett’s scans showed significant activity in the left hemisphere, where mathematical skills have been shown to reside. His brain lit up most strongly in the left parietal cortex, an area behind the crown of the head that integrates information from different senses. There was also some activation in parts of his temporal lobe (involved in visual memory, sensory processing and emotion) and frontal lobe (involved in executive function, planning and attention).

But the fMRI showed only which areas were active in Padgett’s brain. To show that these particular areas were causing the man’s synesthesia, Brogaard’s team used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which involves zapping the brain with a magnetic pulse that activates or inhibits a specific region. Stimulating the parts of Padgett’s parietal cortex that had shown the greatest activity in the fMRI scans made his synesthesia fade or disappear, according to a study published last year in the journal Neurocase.

In another study, Brogaard showed that when neurons die, they release chemicals that can increase brain activity in surrounding areas. The increased activity usually fades over time, but sometimes it results in structural changes that can cause brain-activity modifications to persist, Brogaard said.

Scientists don’t know whether the changes in Padgett’s brain are permanent. But if he had structural changes, it’s more likely that his abilities are here to stay, Brogaard said.

So, do abilities like Padgett’s lie dormant in everyone, waiting to be uncovered? Or was there something unique about Padgett’s brain to begin with?

True for others?

Most likely, there is something dormant in everyone, a something that Padgett tapped into, Brogaard said. “It would be quite a coincidence if he were to have that particular special brain and then have an injury,” she said. “And he’s not the only [acquired savant].”

In addition to head injuries, mental disease has been known to reveal latent abilities. And Brogaard and others have done studies suggesting that TMS can temporarily bring out unusual mathematical and artistic skills in apparently normal people.

Having savant skills may come with trade-offs. In Padgett’s case, he developed fairly severe post-traumatic stress disorder and ­obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he still finds it difficult to appear in public.

Yet Padgett wouldn’t change his new abilities if he could. “It’s so good, I can’t even describe it,” he said.

This is an edited version of a story that appeared originally in Live Science.

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