TACOMA, Wash. – In 2002, Jason Padgett was a mullet-wearing furniture salesman who didn’t think much beyond finding the next party.
“I was a total goof-off. Always looking to have fun, chasing girls, drink, party, drive superfast,” Padgett said.
That all came to an abrupt end when he was mugged outside a Tacoma karaoke bar. The beating was so severe it left him in constant pain.
But something else happened that night. The blows somehow rewired his brain. That, in turn, gave him the ability to see and understand geometry and math in ways the rest of us can’t.
His unusual tale has been put into an autobiography, “Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel.” The book was released in April.
Padgett was treated for a concussion the night of the beating and released from Tacoma General Hospital.
He returned home, but something wasn’t the same. He was seeing the world differently. Objects that once moved smoothly through space now appeared jittery, or pixelated.
And he was seeing geometry in everything. Circular objects were now surrounded by straight lines, like picture frames. “It was very confusing at first,” he recalled.
A frightened Padgett retreated to the sanctuary of his home and didn’t come out. For four years.
One day during his self-imposed exile, Padgett was watching TV and saw a feature on Daniel Tammet, a high-functioning autistic savant. Tammet, an essayist, is known for his superhuman memory and synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which people perceive with more than one sense.
Padgett instantly knew that what he was seeing was some form of synesthesia. “It was nice hearing it because I had questioned myself a lot.”
Padgett had tried to explain to people what he was seeing. He made drawing after drawing of his visual representations. The most common was of pi.
He showed the drawings to anyone he’d come across. More often than not the reaction he got was bafflement.
He knew that to understand what he was seeing and to explain it to others he needed to learn math. In a sense, he had suddenly learned a new language but didn’t know how to speak it.
In 2011, he traveled to Stockholm to speak at a conference on consciousness during which synesthesia was a subject. He also was examined at a lab in Helsinki and an MRI led researchers to speculate that his right brain had received the majority of the injuries and caused the other side to overcompensate.
Padgett’s situation is reminiscent of some autistic individuals who paradoxically have prodigious math or memory skills and yet lack basic social skills or even the ability to take care of their basic needs. One area of the brain seems to malfunction while another excels.
For the first time since the mugging, Padgett felt he had a diagnosis and an understanding of what was going on in his brain.