Brilliant Brain, by Accident

A vicious attack turns a dropout into a genius.

Posted Apr 22, 2014

Jason Padgett felt a blow to his head. At first he wasn’t sure what happened. It occurred to him that one of the men that had been following him as he exited the karaoke bar might have hit him. After he was struck again, he went unconscious for a few minutes. The next thing he remembered was being on his knees, hit again and again on the right side of the head.

Jason, 32, realized what was happening: He was being attacked.

A couple of hours later he was diagnosed with internal bleeding and a concussion and sent home to rest for a few days.

After the mugging incident Jason realized that something was unusual. Reality was fragmented. The edges of things were sliced into small pieces. When he moved or watched an object move, patterns would form. The light bouncing off of a car’s window or its shiny paint would explode into an array of triangles.

To his dismay, Jason’s visions didn’t go away. He eventually starting hand-drawing his visions of the fragmented reality. In 2010 he won recognition as Best International Newcomer in the Art Basel Miami Beach Competition.

For years Jason didn't receive an official diagnosis of his condition. However, he knew that it was the severe trauma to his head from the attack that made him perceive reality differently.

After a brief appearance on the local news, Maureen Seaberg—a New York-based journalist and co-author of Jason's memoir Struck By Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, out today)--contacted him to tell him about a condition known as “synesthesia.”

Maureen herself is a synesthete; she explained to Jason that synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the senses are mixed in unusual ways. For example, in one well-known form, grapheme-color synesthesia, numbers or letters are seen as colored.

Though most cases of synesthesia appear to be developmental, acquired cases have also been reported following traumatic brain injury, damage to the brain’s white matter, strokes, brain tumors, posttraumatic blindness and diseases of the optic nerve in the eye. Jason’s case is one of acquired synesthesia.

The many blows to Jason’s head apparently resulted in a mixing of sensory and cognitive streams in Jason’s brain. Jason was now seeing complex geometric figures when looking at moving curved, spiraling or non-solid objects. He was seeing these visual images as projected into real space.

After the brutal attack, Jason entered college. A few math courses later he was getting similar synesthetic responses to mathematical formulas.

When Maureen Seaberg first contacted Jason, she realized that he had not yet met any scientists working on synesthesia. She knew our synesthesia lab was looking for new subjects and recommended that he contact us to see if we could come up with a diagnosis of what was going on in his brain.

We conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging study (fMRI) and a TMS study, looking at responses in Jason's brain to mathematical formulas that induced synesthetic images.

What we found was amazing. Our study showed that the experiences induced by the image-inducing formulas were processed exclusively in the left side of Jason’s brain--in regions associated with math, novel visual imagery and vision for action.

Jason's case is fascinating. If synesthesia and special talent can be acquired after a hard hit on the head, that suggests that most of us have the brain capacities of true geniuses, or people with superhuman minds. As Jason himself points out in Struck by Genius: “I believe I am living proof that these powers lie dormant in all of us.”