TACOMA — In 2002, Jason Padgett was a Camaro-driving, mullet-wearing, muscle-bound furniture salesman who didn’t think much beyond finding the next party.
“I was a total goof-off. Always looking to have fun, chasing girls, drink, party, drive superfast,” Padgett recalled recently in his Northeast Tacoma home.
That all came to an abrupt end when he was mugged outside a karaoke bar. The beating was so severe it left him in constant pain.
But something else happened, also. The blows somehow rewired his brain. That, in turn, gave him the ability to see and understand geometry and math in ways the rest of us can’t.
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His unusual tale has been put into an autobiography, “Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel.” The book, released in April, has garnered international attention from magazines, television shows and dozens of other media outlets.
Managing a business
By his own admission, there was nothing special about Padgett before the night of Sept. 13, 2002. Raised mostly in Alaska, he moved to the South Sound area in the late 1990s to live with his father. Soon he was managing his dad’s futon business, Planet Futon, near the Tacoma Mall.
On that Friday night in 2002, he joined friends at a Mexican restaurant and karaoke bar in Tacoma. When the evening of singing and drinking was winding down, a bartender spotted Padgett’s fat wallet and surreptitiously alerted two ne’er-do-well patrons.
The two men followed Padgett out of the bar, then attacked him, hitting him repeatedly in the head. After the men fled, Padgett was treated for a concussion and released from Tacoma General Hospital.
He returned home, but something wasn’t the same.
Aside from the pain of his injuries, Padgett was seeing the world differently. Objects that once moved smoothly through space now appeared jittery, or pixelated.
And Padgett was seeing geometry in everything. Circular objects were now surrounded by straight lines, like picture frames.
“It was very confusing at first,” he recalled.
He couldn’t look at raindrops spreading out on the surface of a puddle without seeing them as geometric shapes.
Confused and frightened, Padgett retreated into his home. For four years.
New way of seeing
One day during his self-imposed exile, Padgett was watching TV and saw a feature on Daniel Tammet, a high-functioning autistic savant. Tammet, an essayist, is known for his superhuman memory and his synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
Though the condition is rare, an often-encountered form of synesthesia involves perceiving letters and numbers in specific colors. So, a “synesthete” might always see the letter C as blue or the number 6 as red. Names and words can take on unique visual characteristics in the synesthete’s mind.
Padgett instantly knew that what he was seeing was some form of synesthesia.
“It was nice hearing it because I had questioned myself a lot,” he said.
Since the beating, Padgett had tried to explain to people what he was seeing. He made drawing after drawing of his visual representations. The most common was of pi.
Pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, usually is expressed as a number that would stretch to infinity, beginning with 3.14159. But Padgett draws it as a series of overlapping polygons that eventually create a circle.
He’d show the drawings to anyone he’d come across. More often than not the reaction he got was bafflement.
He knew that to understand what he was seeing and to explain it to others he needed to learn math. In a sense, he had suddenly learned a new language but didn’t know how to speak it.
His first stop was Tacoma Community College. Padgett, a college dropout, signed up for a developmental math class in 2006 — the kind of course taken by people who have never understood or have struggled with math. The instructor was Tracey Haynie.
“Jason was so fun to have in class because he got it,” Haynie recalled. “He would sit in my office for hours just asking questions and wanting to go through things in more detail. He had a hunger for it.”
But not all the instructors were as welcoming. One ridiculed him for his unconventional approach.
“One guy was really mean: ‘You need a new brain,’ ” Padgett recalled.
Brain runs differently
In 2011, he traveled to Stockholm to speak at a conference on consciousness during which synesthesia was a subject.
While in Europe, he was examined at a Finnish lab. An MRI showed that his parietal lobe, a part of the brain that cannot normally be accessed by the conscious mind, lit up when Padgett was shown mathematical formulas that gave rise to fractal imagery, but not when shown nonsense formulas.
Also, only his left brain was active when he viewed the formulas, whereas both sides were active when he looked at the nonsense formulas. That led researchers to speculate that his right brain had received the majority of the injuries and caused the other side to overcompensate.
Padgett’s situation is reminiscent of some autistic individuals who paradoxically have prodigious math or memory skills and yet lack basic social skills or even the ability to take care of their basic needs. One area of the brain seems to malfunction while another excels.
For the first time since the mugging, Padgett felt he had a diagnosis and an understanding of what was going on in his brain.
A love of geometry
Though the title of his book calls Padgett a “mathematical marvel,” it’s a little misleading. He needs a calculator to work complicated math, just like most people. What he’s a marvel at, apparently, is geometry.
“Curves are an illusion, created by relativity,” Padgett said. He can discuss the uncertainty principal, calculus, the Doppler effect and relativity in an almost nonstop manner.
Haynie, his former instructor at TCC, says Padgett is unlike any other person she’s met.
“Everything I taught him, he got right away,” she said. “But there were things he was doing that were related to physics where I have no background, so I didn’t know what to tell him.”
She referred him to a physics professor.
Haynie didn’t go into higher math with Padgett at the time, because he wasn’t ready for it. But, she said, Padgett’s brain was clearly operating in a different manner compared to others.
“He was seeing things differently,” she said.
“I remember he was very interested in fractals and how they worked.”
Padgett still makes his drawings of pi, fractals and his representation of E=mc². They have gotten a lot of interest and generated sales. He recently displayed them in Miami during Art Basel, an international art show.
Damage from beating
The injury affected his memory. He uses his publicist to keep his appointments straight, and some of the dates mentioned in the book don’t add up.
His obsessive ways and agoraphobia keep him away from Planet Futon most days. When he is there, he often engages customers in discussions of geometry when they notice his drawings on the wall. Some find it fascinating, others react like deer caught in headlights.
“Even though I am obsessed with pi and geometry, everybody else doesn’t want to hear it 24 hours a day,” he said.
Padgett is 43 now — “a prime number,” he pointed out. He knows the exact number of days until his wife, Elena, is due to give birth to their first child — a girl. (Padgett has another daughter from a previous relationship.) He met Elena, a student from Russia, when he started classes at TCC.
The beating still causes Padgett physical pain but the event has altered his life in so many good ways, he says. There are times, though, he misses the state of consciousness he had before the mugging.
“My brain is never off,” he said. “Sometimes it would be nice to have it off.”