An accident unlocked Jason Padgett’s mathematical and artistic potential, making him one of only 40 people in the world with Acquired Savant Syndrome.
Jason Padgett, who has acquired savant syndrome, says he wouldn’t change any of the pain he underwent after being beaten, as he now sees the world in an overlay of geometric fractals that he believes hold answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
With the popularity of shows like The OA, The 4400 and Second Chance, questions about the human brain’s hidden abilities surface, leaving many of us to wonder what price we’d pay to unlock hidden neurological gems. Though these shows are fictional, the brain science behind some of them is not. And there are real-life people to prove it.
For Jason Padgett, a man living with Acquired Savant Syndrome after a violent mugging in 2002 in Tacoma, Washington, the price has been hefty, including PTSD, OCD and chronic pain. Yet he maintains his acquired savant abilities are a gift and one he wishes he could share with everyone. In his 2014 book, Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel (coauthored with Maureen Seaberg), he writes:
“I’ve spent plenty of time pondering the very fabric of the universe and how we fit into it. And I’ve concluded that no matter what you go through in life, in the end, there is a symmetry to it all, an order amid the seeming disorder. And if you could see what I see, you’d know that you’re an essential part of that order. If I could draw the world as I see it, and show every last person how he or she is enmeshed in this fine and intricate and impossibly beautiful structure, perhaps people would stop getting lost in the hurt of things and be elevated by the wonder of it all.”
According to Beautiful Minds: A Voyage into the Brain, a documentary miniseries exploring the talents of various savants, a savant is a person with a mental disorder, such as autism, who has “superhuman” abilities, often in the form of math or music. An acquired savant refers to someone who was not born with these remarkable abilities but gained them through some kind of a health disturbance, such as a stroke or head injury. Experts believe all of our brains are capable of these talents, but for most people developing these abilities has been overshadowed by developing other high-functioning tools, such as language.
Padgett, who resides in Tacoma with his wife and three children, is among only about 40 people with Acquired Savant Syndrome worldwide and is the only reported person with both Acquired Synesthesia and Acquired Savant Syndrome. Synesthesia, or “joined perceptions,” is a condition in which one sense (such as sight) is simultaneously perceived by one or more other senses (such as hearing). Some people with synesthesia might see particular colors when they see or hear a certain numeral, for example. Synesthesia often runs in families but can also occur after a brain injury.
Padgett’s synesthesia results in his seeing geometric patterns everywhere. When he looks at trees, he sees more than the green leaves and billowing branches. His eyes literally see a geometrical blueprint laid on top of them. He is able to draw these images meticulously, resulting in some amazing art, which has been displayed at Oxford University, in galleries and in private collections.
When I asked whether he considers himself an artist or a mathematician, Padgett immediately responded “mathematician” and went on to explain that he believes most artists are unknowingly mathematicians. “Every single shape we see, even your eyelash, is literally an equation. Art is just shape. Equations are everything.”
Padgett began seeing these fractals immediately after his concussion and didn’t know what to make of them at first. He had a new knowledge base of math and physics yet didn’t have the language of mathematical terminology to communicate his new abilities. After the mugging, Padgett suffered from severe social anxiety and spent three years holed up in his apartment with blankets covering the windows. But soon his craving for formal mathematical training brought Padgett out of hiding, and he enrolled in the local community college. Prior to his accident, the highest math course he’d ever taken was prealgebra. In fact, he’d been an avid partier with no interest in math or anything academic whatsoever.
Nearly 10 years after his concussion, Padgett underwent brain scans, which confirmed his synesthesia and savant abilities, showing brain activity in portions of the brain dormant in most people. These typically dormant capabilities are what savant expert Dr. Darold Treffert calls “factory-installed software,” or part of our shared “genetic memory.”
Padgett is among a small number of “halfway savants,” a term Dr. Treffert coined in his book Islands of Genius. The term refers not to savant abilities but rather to the trade-offs, which are less compared with many savants who have major cognitive impairments. Treffert writes, “‘Acquired’ Savant Syndrome, or ‘accidental genius,’ is the most important new development in the study of Savant Syndrome since it was first described over a century ago. It is particularly important to note how many such cases include left (dominant) hemisphere dysfunction with the release of dormant right (non-dominant) hemisphere capacity (paradoxical functional facilitation) as opposed to the development of entirely new skills. In some instances there is a noticeable diminution of certain cognitive or other abilities with the emergence of new skills (acquired savant), but in other cases only minor, barely significant detrimental trade-off occurs, and these persons continue to function at a very high level overall (‘halfway’ savant).”
Padgett’s trade-offs, while deemed minor compared to those of other savants, have been painful and life-altering. In Struck By Genius, he shares, “I knew that I was much more fortunate than most savants, many of whom struggle with overwhelming disabilities. Some, like the sculptor Alonzo Clemons, are barely able to form sentences.”
Padgett continues, “The man on whom Rain Man is based, Kim Peek, couldn’t even tie his own shoes. My trade-offs might not have been as severe, but they were legion. Some days they felt like death, to a thousand tiny paper cuts — tiny but really annoying little wounds, sharp as knives.”
Muscle twitches were only one of Padgett’s trade-offs. He says OCD made him feel like he was moving through life like molasses. Simple tasks such as brushing his teeth became a lengthy ordeal. His mind was moving faster than usual, but his body was slower and he felt powerless. He ended up in a pain clinic and suffering with anxiety and depression.
Another acquired savant, Derek Amato, has reported similar trade-offs. In 2006 Derek Amato, a middle-aged man, suffered a serious concussion after diving into shallow water that left him with 35% less hearing, some memory loss and ongoing headaches. But, as with Padgett, the accident also unlocked something in Amato’s brain: a music genius. Amato, who never took any formal music lessons and still cannot read music, now is a professional musician playing concerts for thousands of people and writing his own music. He sees patterns in his mind that tell him which piano keys to play. And he says he wouldn’t trade this newfound ability to end the headaches or the hearing loss.
Given that most acquired savants experience a certain number of unpleasant trade-offs in exchange for their new abilities, whether minor or severe, does the old adage “no pain, no gain” ring true? Do our brains need to undergo some sort of trauma in order to unlock certain corridors?
In his book, Padgett says researchers are still trying to connect the dots as to exactly how his injuries led to his savant abilities. Dr. Treffert explains it has something to do with the three Rs: rewiring, recruitment of unused capacity and release of dormant potential. Dr. Treffert says, “Cases like Jason’s prove a far greater plasticity of the brain and its ability to heal itself than was previously thought.” Padgett hopes this will eventually help others, such as people with autism or stroke sufferers.
Dr. Allan Snyder displays a creativity cap / Photo via NBC News. In background: Relativity by Jason Padgett.
Some scientists, such as Dr. Allan Snyder, are trying to elicit this untapped potential in non-savants. Dr. Snyder invented the “creativity cap,” which has shown remarkable results while placed on the heads of people with average abilities. People who were capable of drawing only stick figures can create beautiful artwork while the cap is on, though the results last only about 45 minutes.
Padgett believes there are small ways to access the dormant parts of our brain, including techniques such as meditation. He notes in his memoir that his geometric drawings went from two-dimensional to three-dimensional works of art when he began regularly meditating.
“Our brain can adapt,” he says. “Things that seem impossible to learn can be taught, step by step.”
For now, three years after the release of his book, and 15 years since that fateful evening attack, Padgett is very busy with a new baby and toddler and continues to help out at his family’s business, a futon store where he often engages customers in conversations about everything from geometry to parallel universes to the meaning of life. Since his Nightline interview went viral, it is not uncommon for people to come into his store to ask for his autograph.
Padgett tells me his real dream job is to work for SpaceX or a similar company. He says a deep sense of obligation keeps him at his family’s business, so for now Padgett will continue at the futon store while spreading his ideas through TED Talks and riveting conversations with strangers.
As he states poignantly near the end of his memoir: “My art is central to sharing these ideas with others. To me, it is the fundamental nature of things. But will it end up shedding light on the nature of the cosmos when considered by top mathematicians and astrophysicists? I would like to start that conversation and humbly share what is going on in my mind with key people from many fields. To me, the beauty and symmetry of what I see and draw signals some greater truth.”