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Education

An attack outside a karaoke bar turned this simple furniture salesman into a mathematical genius

The tragic encounter gave Jason Padgett an extremely rare phenomenon known as "Acquired Savant Syndrome."

josh padgett, acquired savant syndrome
TEDx Talks/YouTube

Josh Padgett sharing his story on TEDx

Savant syndrome is an extremely rare condition in which a person diagnosed with a developmental disorder also displays extraordinary mental or artistic talent. Rarer still is Acquired Savant Syndrome, where a seemingly average person undergoes a traumatic brain injury and comes out with these otherworldly abilities.

Mathematical genius Jason Padgett is one of those cases. One of the first recorded cases, in fact.

Padgett was a furniture salesman, living a self-described “shallow” life chasing girls and parties, with zero interest in academics—least of all math, which he found “stupid.”

One fateful night in 2002 would change everything. Padgett was attacked just outside the karaoke bar he had visited, leaving him with a severe concussion. The day he woke up, he could see the world radically differently—everyday objects suddenly looked pixelated.


He would later discover that the images he perceived were fractals, mathematical patterns that create complex geometric shapes, more or less. It’s a hard enough concept to fathom, and even more incredible to actually see.

Padgett began drawing these shapes whenever he could, believing them to be the “keys to the universe.” It wouldn’t be until a physicist recognized his drawings and urged him to take more math classes that Padgett had a language for the things he now understood intuitively.

fractals

One of Padgett's fractal drawings titled "Spiral Scalar"

render.fineartamerica.com

Padgett’s newfound genius eventually became the subject of research, confirming an Acquired Savant Syndrome diagnosis. MRI scans revealed that in order to compensate for the area damaged by the attack, different parts of his brain, one linked to mathematical understanding, were more activated.

He also developed synesthesia, when involuntary perceptions cross over between senses (tasting shapes, hearing colors, etc.). This explained him being able to suddenly perceive mathematical formulas as geometric figures.

“I see it [beauty] everywhere,” he said, according to the BBC. “I’m having this mathematical awakening and all around us is absolute magic or about as close as you can get to magic.” Padgett now sells his mesmerizing mathematical artwork online and captivates readers and live audiences alike with his remarkable story.

There is still very little known about savant syndrome, and nuances are being discovered all the time. A report in 2021, for instance, documented 11 cases in which ordinary people, without previous head injuries or neurotypical diagnosis, gained savant-like abilities, leading to a new term of Sudden Savant Syndrome. The human brain really is an entire mysterious universe, and we are only beginning to scratch the surface of it.

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