Man becomes math genius after head injury

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This drawing is an example of sudden savant Jason Padgetts' genius at work, and his unique, mathematical vision of the world. The circle, created out of 720 hand-drawn triangles, shows his comprehension of pi. "I came to understand how pi is calculated by measuring the area of the circle," he writes in his memoir.

Jason Padgett's world is bursting with mathematical patterns. He is one of a few people in the world who can draw approximations of fractals, the repeating geometric patterns that are building blocks of everything in the known universe, by hand. Tree leaves outside his window are evidence of Pythagoras' Theorem. The arc that light makes when it bounces off his car proves the power of pi.

He sees the parts that make up the whole. And his world is never boring, never without amazement. Even his dreams are made up of geometry.

"I can barely remember a time," the 43-year-old says, "when I saw the world the way most everyone else does."

Flashback 12 years: Padgett had dropped out of Tacoma (Wash.) Community College, and was a self-described "goof" with zero interest in academics, let alone math. The only time he dealt in numbers was to track the hours until his shift ended at his father's furniture store, tally up his bar tab, and count bicep curls at the gym.

Party time came to end the night of Friday, Sept. 13, 2002, at a karaoke bar near his home. There, two men attacked him from behind, punching him in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious then kicked him.

He was rushed to the hospital, where a CT scan revealed a bruised kidney. He was released that same night.

The next morning, while running the water in the bathroom, he noticed "lines emanating out perpendicularly from the flow. At first, I was startled, and worried for myself, but it was so beautiful that I just stood in my slippers and stared."

Padgett is one of only 40 people in the world with "acquired *savant syndrome," a condition in which prodigious talents in math, art or music emerge in previously normal individuals following a brain injury or disease.

Acquired savants like Padgett raise remarkable questions about the rest of us average folk: Do we all have inner Einsteins just waiting for the right bop on the head to be set free? Do we possess inner greatness?

"It's remarkable that he sees the world this way without any real training," says Tim Chartier, a math and computer-science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. "Is that genius? I think you have to be careful when you use that word, but, yes, to be able to see that. That's just wild."

Dr. Berit Brogaard, now director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami, invited him to Finland for a three-day *research work-up.

She used fMRI machines and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to find that the right side of Padgett's brain had been compromised and that there was greater activation on the left side. She noted significant increased activity in the left parietal lobe — which is where neuroscientists say "math lives."

The parietal lobe is involved with many complex computations used in our daily lives. Reach out for a cup of coffee while reading, and your brain is making seriously complex calculations (charting the distance, the weight, the velocity of movement, etc.) — all of this without our realizing it.

"One could speculate that [Padgett] has better access to these areas than the rest of us," Brogaard says.

The truth is we know very little about our 3-pound organs, says Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center of Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego.

"All the progress and advances we've made in neuroscience over the years, yet we know precious little of higher brain functions. These anomalies, as scientists call them, show the depth of our ignorance," he says.

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