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How a brutal attack turned a man into a mathematics genius

He used to think math was stupid, but a life-changing incident made him a renowned mathematician.

How a brutal attack turned a man into a mathematics genius
Cover Image Source: YouTube | @TEDArchive

For Jason Padgett, life revolves around math. He is obsessed with numbers and geometry. Always carrying a paper pad, pencil, ruler, and compass, he draws mathematical shapes and geometrical mandalas of things only he can see. However, the genius number theorist and mathematical artist from Alaska wasn't always this way. In 2002, his life changed forever. That year, he survived a brutal attack that catapulted him from a blackout to a life of mathematical fame.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | olly
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Olly

His life before the accident was entirely different. He was an avid partygoer with a spiky hairstyle, spending his days at bars. He cheated on his homework, never opened a book, and copied from his friends' notebooks, who readily allowed it. Math was nowhere on his radar; he dismissed it as a "stupid" subject.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | alesiakozik
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Alesiakozik

Everything changed on the night of Friday, September 13. As Padgett walked out of a karaoke bar, two men attacked him, landing a hard punch. The punch left him with a severe concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors diagnosed him with a bruised kidney and sent him home with painkillers. At the time, he was working as a furniture salesman in Tacoma, Washington, reported BBC.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | alesiakozik
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Alesiakozik

Immediately after the attack, Padgett recalled seeing a bright white flash of light, and his life took a sharp turn. After experiencing debilitating social anxiety for weeks and months, Padgett noticed something was wrong. The world appeared different to him, like picture frames of a video. “Everything has a pixilated look,” he said on The Outlook Podcast in 2018.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | sum it
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Sum It

Soon, he realized that the incident, which left him feeling like a cat on hot bricks, was revealing itself to be a gift of astounding capacity. The blow to his head unlocked brain areas where senses bleed into one another, creating a mathematical view of everything. Suddenly, he could access the gold previously buried in his subconscious.


 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Jason Padgett (@jasonquantum1)


 

"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 told Live Science. "It's just really beautiful." Padgett proposes that concepts like a perfect circle and infinity do not exist.


 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Jason Padgett (@jasonquantum1)


 

One day, a physicist spotted him making complex mathematical drawings in his notebook and was awestruck by Padgett’s precise mathematical sketches. He encouraged Padgett to pursue mathematical training, leading him to become the brilliant number theorist he is today.


 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Jason Padgett (@jasonquantum1)


 

Padgett’s transformation into a mathematical genius not only changed his life but also shed light on medical mysteries like “synesthesia” and “acquired savant syndrome.” Usually, people with this syndrome are known to develop some extraordinary artistic or mathematical capabilities following a traumatic injury, as per Brain & Life Magazine.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | tara winstead
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Tara Winstead

Padgett was diagnosed with this syndrome when Berit Brogaard from the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, Florida, conducted a brain scan of his brain with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They wanted to understand what triggered his brain to shift into such mathematical ingenuity. "Acquired savant syndrome is very rare," Brogaard said, adding that only 15 to 25 cases have ever been described in medical studies. During the scan, Brogaard’s colleagues showed Padgett mathematical equations and formulas to see how his brain reacted and which areas lit up.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | eric tayong hicale
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Eric Tayong Hicale

The fMRI scans indicated significant activity in the left hemisphere of Padgett's brain, a part that is supposed to carry a person’s mathematical abilities. The area at the back of his head especially lit up when he saw the math equations. This area controls sensory information.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | merlin
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Merlin

Brogaard said that scientists don't know whether the changes in Padgett's brain are permanent, but if he had structural changes, it's more likely his abilities are here to stay. In 2014, Padgett authored a memoir titled "Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel," describing his unusual experience. He also appeared in a 2016 TED Talk, speaking about how math changed his life forever.



 

Having studied Padgett’s case, Brogaard commented that miraculous abilities like this are dormant in all human beings, but they only emerge when one experiences severe head injuries, mental disease or trauma.

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