Man Becomes Math Genius after Severe Brain Injury

May 07, 2014 02:49 PM EDT | Jordan Ecarma

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Jason Padgett, a Washington-based furniture salesman, suffered a brutal attack outside a karaoke bar in 2002 that left him with a severe concussion, post-traumatic stress disorder--and an unexpected gift.

Formerly a jock and partyer who didn't express interest in academics, Padgett developed an incredible ability to see everything in the world as a mathematic structure after his injuries, Live Science reported.

"I see shapes and angles everywhere in real life," Padgett told Live Science. "It's just really beautiful."

Padgett explained that he sees the world as "discrete picture frames with a line connecting them, but still at real speed" and "everything has a pixilated look," he told LiveScience.

Whether it's a rainbow or flowing water, Padgett can visualize intricate mathematical structures in an intuitive fashion; for example, he knows that no circle is a perfect circle because he can always see the edges of the polygon inside.

Padgett, who never made it past pre-algebra while in school and "cheated on everything" in his math studies, began sketching complicated geometric shapes after being injured. Because he wasn't trained in math, he couldn't understand what he was drawing.

In a serendipitous incident, a physicist spotted the Tacoma, Wash., salesman at a mall drawing these mathematical structures and told Padgett to go back to school, which he did. Now working to be a number theorist, Padgett is studying in his sophomore year of college.

His remarkable ability gained after a brain injury is known as acquired savant syndrome, which is when regular people become brilliant after severe injury or illness. Even within this select circle, Padgett's math genius is especially rare, as most other cases involve people who develop prodigious musical or artistic talents.

Just 15 to 25 acquired savant syndrome cases have ever been described in medical studies, Berit Brogaard, a philosophy professor now at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fl., told LiveScience.

Brogaard and her colleagues scanned Padgett's brain to attempt to understand how the injury resulted in his newfound skills. It's likely that the injury unlocked something in his brain that lies dormant in every person, she said. Padgett's case implies that all humans have incredible skills hidden somewhere in their brains.

"It would be quite a coincidence if he were to have that particular special brain and then have an injury," Brogaard told LiveScience. "And he's not the only [acquired savant]."

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