A brain injury has turned a man into a mathematical genius

10/05/2014 23:16

Fiona MacDonald 

After being brutally attacked in 2002, Jason Padgett now sees the world through a geometric lens. New research suggests the same ability may lie dormant in all our brains.


Image: Jason Padgett via LiveScience

Before the attack, which left him with concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder, Jason Padgett had very little interest in maths.

But while recovering from his injury, he suddenly started to see the world differently. It was pixelated and appeared as "discrete picture frames with a line connecting them, but still at real speed". Imagine a set of video frames that haven't been smoothed, explains Tanya Lewis who has written about Padgett's amazing story for LiveScience.

He also started to see geometric shapes almost everywhere he looked. "I see shapes and angles everywhere in real life" — from the geometry of a rainbow, to the fractals in water spiralling down a drain, Padgett told Live Science. "It's just really beautiful." 

He started drawing geometric shapes frequently without knowing what they meant. It was only after a physicist saw him sketching in a mall and encouraged him to study mathematics that he realised he suddenly could understand extremely complex concepts, such as that of pi.

It turns out, his injuries had unlocked a part of his brain that makes the world appear to have a mathematical structure.

The extraordinary ability is something doctors call savant syndrome, in which a normal person develops special abilities after injury or disease. It's extremely rare, with only 15 to 25 cases of someone acquiring savant syndrome recorded. But it's even rarer for someone to acquire mathematical skills like Padgett.

He also appears to have synesthesia, which is a phenomenon where one sense bleeds into another, allowing him to perceive mathematical formulas as geometric figures.

Fascinated by what was causing these unique abilities, neuroscientists began conducting studies of Pagnett's brain. They now believe they've finally figured out which part of his brain was altered to unlock his new skills.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic simulation, which involves zapping the brain with a magnetic pulse to activate or inhibit a specific brain region, the researchers found that activity in Padgett's parietal cortex seemed to be causing his unusual abilities. The parietal cortex is an area behind the crown of the head known to integrate information from different senses.

But what causes these changes?

In another study, Berit Brogaard, a philosophy professor now at the University of Miami, who led the research on Pagnett, showed that when neurons die, they release brain-signalling chemicals that can increase brain activity in surrounding areas. The increased activity usually fades over time, but it can also result in structural changes that cause brain-activity modifications to persist, which may be the case for Padgett.

This suggests that, if stimulated correctly, all human brains may have the potential to see the world as Padgett does, even if it's just temporarily.

But before you start getting excited about potentially zapping your brain to go on a mathematical trip, it's still not known whether having savant skills comes with a trade-off. In Padgett's case, he has fairly severe post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

However, his tragic accident provides some amazing insight into how our brains work and how we interact with the world around us. And Padgett wouldn't change it for the world. He told LiveScience: "It's so good, I can't even describe it."

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