Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

Struck by Genius

Acquired savant Jason Padgett's acquired mathematical synesthesia a first

Everyone knows someone like the old Jason Padgett. "Jason 1.0" was a fun-loving everyman: your college roommate, your neighbor, a cousin...the guy who lacked direction but was the life of the party.

And then he wasn't.

Jason was brutally mugged in 2002 and the most incredible thing happened. When he came to from the blows to his head, he had acquired synesthesia and savant syndrome from the brain injury. Little chipped shapes appeared to bounce off the hoods of passing cars; the coronas of streetlamps suggested a new way to calculate pi...

I've had the privilege of being Jason's friend and colleague for almost four years now. He came into my life through a Google synesthesia alert I had set up on my Gmail account to keep up with the latest in synesthesia news. His abilities at once humble me and fill me with wonder.

I clicked the link that November day in 2010 and came upon a video he had just uploaded of himself drawing the intricate geometric shapes he sees synesthetically in response to equations and ideas. I was immediately awed, and reached out to him through YouTube. I was thrilled when he wrote back and I began peppering this patient and likable man with what must have seemed like a million questions.

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Jason Padgett
Jason Padgett was once a party guy and body builder.
Courtesy Jason Padgett and HMH
I was shocked to learn Jason acquired his amazing ability to draw and understand complex math and physics as the result of a brain injury sustained in that brutal mugging outside a karaoke bar. He’d not only never had these abilities before being punched and kicked in the head, he’d dropped out of college and in fact, had never been exposed to the things he was suddenly understanding. He’d not yet been officially diagnosed but felt it was synesthesia and savantism because he recognized his own experiences in a documentary he saw about Daniel Tammet. I knew I must help Jason find proper medical care and that his story must be told. He agreed when we met in New York City shortly after our first email exchange.

I reached out to Dr. Berit Brogaard, a conference colleague, and asked if she would study Jason. She arranged for him to be tested with fMRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation in a lab in Helsinki, Finland, while we were all in Europe for the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference. Dr. Brogaard's team's findings proved that Jason has higher, or conceptual synesthesia. To the best of her knowledge, he was the first person to acquire synesthesia and savant syndrome. Moreover, he seemed to be the first to hand-draw mathematical fractals and the first known synesthete to see fractals in objects and formulas.

Art by Jason Padgett
Water Ripple by Jason Padgett.
Courtesy Jason Padgett
Next, Jason and I traveled to beautiful Fond du Lac, Wisconsin to meet with the "Dean of Savants," Dr. Darold Treffert. Dr. Treffert is the world's authority on savants and acquired savants. He declared Jason's savantism and synesthesia "self-evident" after interviewing him at length and having him demonstrate his new drawing skills at St. Agnes Hospital.

Four years and many thousands of miles of travel to understand this medical mystery later, the book we’ve written together about Jason’s life and case will debut April 22 for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is titled STRUCK BY GENIUS: HOW A BRAIN INJURY MADE ME A MATHEMATICAL MARVEL and is available here: www.struckbygenius.com. Jason will appear on CBS This Morning on April 24 and at The Rubin Museum of Art on April 25: http://www.rubinmuseum.org/nav/events/load/2515.

Jason is a delight. He never fails to relate everything, and I mean everything, back to math or science. For example, here’s a bit of a phone call between us:

“Hey, happy 43rd birthday,” I said.

“I’m really happy.”

“You should be happy. You could have been killed – and instead, look how things turned out!”

“No silly, that’s not why I’m happy. I’m happy because 43 is a prime number, divisible by only itself and 1.”

And he was serious.

Jason Padgett and Darold Treffert
Jason Padgett today with Dr. Darold Treffert.
I took this photo
With our publisher’s permission, I’d like to take you back to the fateful night he was attacked with the following excerpt. It is very rare that someone would acquire synesthesia as a result of blows to the head. Here you will see Jason’s first impressions after that incident. Excerpt from STRUCK BY GENIUS by Jason Padgett and Maureen Seaberg. Copyright © 2014 by Jason Padgett and Maureen Ann Seaberg. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved: 

"At age 31 I guess I was pretty aimless, but it didn’t feel like that to me at the time. I was having fun, bouncing from one night out to the next. I rarely had a serious thought in my head. My only goal was to live with joyful abandon 24-7. And in all honesty, I was really happy.

When my friend Angela called from a karaoke bar on a September night in 2002, I was especially excited to join in the party. I knew at least 20 karaoke selections by heart; I didn’t even have to look at the subtitles on the prompter. My top two songs were "Close My Eyes Forever," by Ozzy Osbourne and Lita Ford, and "Takin' Care of Business," by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. I was a good singer and I loved the reaction I got from the crowds when I took the stage. Sometimes they really cheered for me.  I tried not to let it go to my head when I performed, but  I used to squint and imagine it was a stadium filled with 100,000 people. So I was looking forward to another karaoke night with friends.

But first I had to get ready.

I put my Charlie Daniels Band CD in my stereo and began bopping around the house playing air fiddle to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." I always did a warm-up before going out, to get the adrenaline flowing. I knew the words to this song by heart, but that night I came up with new lyrics based on the line in the original hit song where the hero, Johnny, tells the devil to “Come on back if you ever want to try again.” I guess I was always one to tempt fate. It was a thrilling scenario: a re-match with the Prince of Darkness.

I sang: 

It had been several years since these two had first met

And unbeknownst to Johnny, the contest wasn’t over yet…

 

When the devil spotted Johnny basking in the sun

Enjoying all that wealth from the golden fiddle he had won…

 

The devil said to Johnny, "This time I'll let you start the show,"

But it took Johnny 20 minutes to find his fiddle and his bow. 

What if the devil found Johnny years later, bloated and lazy from having won the golden fiddle in the first competition, and challenged him to try again? What if Johnny was foolish enough to gamble his soul one more time? Still dancing, I grabbed a pen and paper, and in the lyrics I found flowing out of me, the devil jumped up on the trunk of Johnny’s new Mercedes-Benz and proceeded to annihilate him in competitive fiddling. Johnny lost the challenge and his children looked on in horror as he fell to the ground and the devil collected his soul in a leather pouch. This was a really good sequel, I decided.

I was sang my new version of the song when I showered and then began the business of fixing my hair. My hair was long—OK, it was an actual mullet—and I needed a special brush and plenty of mousse and gel and just the right flick of the wrist while blow-drying it to get my bangs the way I wanted them. It was brisk weather outside so I piled on the hairspray and dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and my black leather jacket.

It was Friday the 13th but I wasn't superstitious. The bar was in a sketchy part of town, but I'd never had a problem before and I wasn’t one to pass up a night out. I made my way upstairs to the second floor of the Mexican restaurant where the bar was located, turned left, and found Angela and her date sitting near the stage. The lighting was dim except for some Christmas tree lights, a standard bar trick to make everyone look more attractive. How many times had I stayed at a bar until closing and then discovered, when the bright lights were turned on, that the young woman I’d been kissing wasn’t nearly as cute as I’d thought? And perhaps under fluorescent lights, I wasn't her ideal man either.

There wasn’t much of a crowd and the place wasn’t exactly rocking like a lot of the other places I liked. For me, a good bar was a spot where people were packed in like sardines, the music was so loud you could feel it thumping in your chest, and the 8 or 9 bouncers had to pull guys off of each other a few times a night. That kind of place wasn’t always safe, but I loved the energy-- I loved rough-and-tumble good times. There were no bouncers at the karaoke bar that night, and even if there had been, they wouldn't have had anything to do. It was that quiet.

I made my way to Angela’s table, and people handed the DJ, a cross-dressing man with long fingernails and eye make-up named Cat, their slips of paper with their song choices. I knew the number in the catalogue as easily as the title: it was my favorite, #34-A-7. I didn’t even have to look it up. First up was a newly-divorced man who sang Jerry Reed’s “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).” We all clapped along with him and cheered as he screamed out the bitter lyrics. He definitely felt better by the end of the performance. Angela got her chance a few singers after that and did a perfect “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees, which was her signature song, and a little while later, I stood at the microphone, serenading the crowd of about 30 people with a Jon Bon Jovi song.

Shot down in a blaze of glory

Take me now, but know the truth

I used the stage well, walking back and forth with a cowboy gait, and when the tune ended, I took a bow to enthusiastic applause, A couple of people shook my hand and declared it awesome. That made me happy. I was lucky enough to get good reactions after most of my performances. The only time I was ever heckled was when I attempted hip hop’s “The Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground a few years earlier and people started yelling “White boy!” 

I walked to the bar and ordered a Coke, and the tall, brunette bartender’s eyes lingered a second too long on my full wallet, but it didn't quite register. I was carrying only a couple of hundred dollars but I had it in small bills so it must have seemed like a real bankroll. I tipped her two dollars and she smiled, then I downed the soda and motioned for my friends to start packing up so I could give them a ride home. They were a little drunk and half the reason Angela called me was for a ride home. We always did that for each other. My parents had worked hard to teach me about the dangers of drinking and driving. One night I walked 11 miles home in several feet of Alaska snow rather than take the wheel.

Angela and her date and I made our way down the stairs followed by two other patrons whom I'd seen sitting in the corner of the bar with their backs to the wall. 

I was just ten steps from the front door when suddenly, a blow struck my head just behind my right ear. There was a flash of white light and I heard a deep low sound, lower than the lowest key on a piano. I went down on one knee and lost consciousness briefly as the blinding white light went to black. When I came to, shortly after that, I was still one knee and thought someone put me in a playful headlock and missed. My male friends were always play-wrestling and roughhousing and though I hadn’t expected it of Angela’s date, he probably was just trying to be friendly.

Just as I stood to ask Angela and her date what had happened, there was a second punch to my head from another direction, then a third. I was knocked from side to side and I lost my footing each time, but now I could see Angela and her date in front of me and I knew it wasn’t him. Were my friends really just standing there while this happened? “Goddamn it, help!” I shouted. They stood motionless and I noticed that Angela’s mouth was shaped in a perfect “O” and she had this wild, horrified look in her eyes. Her date simply threw his hands in the air, turned and walked away. I fell to the ground. While I lay prone on the sidewalk, the two attackers rifled through the pockets of my leather jacket. I saw Angela run inside the restaurant—I hoped for some help. I managed to grab one of the men by the crotch and squeeze with all my might, then I bit him on the thigh. If I was going to die tonight, someone was going to have a scar to remember me by. A different guy then kicked me violently in the back of the head in retaliation and shouted an anti-gay epithet. Punches rained down on me from all directions. It felt like my head was on fire. I didn’t know how many men were attacking me, as I couldn’t get far enough away for perspective. I thought it might be a gang.

In the chaos of the mugging, they never once looked in my back jeans pocket, where I'd put my wallet with the $200 tucked inside. Frustrated, they settled for the jacket, ripping it off my body and running down the street. I caught a glimpse of them and knew it was the same two men who'd been in the bar with us. I’d felt no fear while they followed us down the stairs. Though they towered over me, they had looked so clean cut and straight-laced.

I struggled to get to my feet. Not only was I in a lot of pain, I was also having trouble getting my bearings. The world looked different: off-kilter, dream-like. Everything that moved had trails of colored light following close behind it. There were triangles and squares in repeating patterns wherever I looked, from the windows, to the lampposts, to the street signs. Angela came back outside, and though she'd been frozen in place during the attack, now she moved toward me in bizarre, stop-action frames. I rubbed my eyes. The glow of the streetlights seemed amplified. I could see the cars going by, little chipped shapes bouncing off their hoods…"

 

The book has already received a Kirkus Star: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jason-padgett/struck-by-genius/, and was named one of Apple's 20 Best Books for April.

I’m so glad to know Jason, who has radically altered the way I look at everything from synesthesia to human potential. He and I hope that all of you will feel uplifted by his miraculous story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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