From math failure to savant: How a mugging made a numbers whiz
Josh Elliott, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, April 25, 2014 10:08AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, April 25, 2014 10:52AM EDT
Like a comic book superhero, Jason Padgett’s mathematical prowess comes with an unlikely origin story.
After a savage beating outside a karaoke bar left him with a traumatic brain injury, Padgett discovered his brain had somehow been rewired to think – and draw – mathematically.
Padgett describes the brutal bar attack and his subsequent transformation into a math savant in his new book, Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel.
"It's basically like being forced to see in calculus," Padgett told CTV’s Canada AM in an interview from New York on Friday.
His condition is called savant syndrome, and while it’s more common among people with autism, significant head trauma is also a known trigger. Essentially, savant syndrome occurs when an individual with a mental disability displays sudden, extraordinary talent.
It can come in many forms, but for Padgett, it manifest as a never-before-seen affinity for numbers.
Padgett said he was a jock before the attack, more prone to drinking, "goofing off," and chasing girls than studying. He actually failed high school algebra, he said.
But since the attack, Padgett describes seeing the world in a series of "discrete, disjointed" flash-frames overlaid with an invisible grid.
"It feels like having two different lives," Padgett said.
He said his transformation also brought a second ability: he can now draw the complex triangle-based geometric designs called fractals. That lets him translate high-level mathematical concepts like Pi and the theory of relativity into easy-to-understand illustrative drawings.
"I can show somebody a series of three pictures, and if they’re a fifth-grader, they get it," said Padgett.
A physicist discovered Padgett drawing fractals at a fast-food restaurant and encouraged him to seek formal training, he said.
Now, Padgett is a number theorist and student living in Tacoma, Wash.
Padgett’s book, co-authored by psychologist Maureen Seaberg, went on sale Apr. 22.