When two thugs bashed Jason Padgett outside a bar they weren't trying to release skills he never knew he had, less still conduct one of the most groundbreaking neuroscience experiments of the century. But as it turned out, that's what they did. Hopefully the events will never be repeated, but they opened up new worlds for Padgett and lines of inquiry for neuroscientists.
Pre-bashing, Padgett not only had no particular mathematical skill and no interest in the subject. “I cheated on everything and I never cracked a book” is how the self-confessed former "jock" describes his approach to math. After recovering from concussion resulting from being knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked in the head, Padgett saw the world in an entirely different way.
“Everything has a pixilated look,” Padgett says. He claims, for example, to see the way fractal way water drains in real time. Moreover, he can represent the world he sees with astonishing drawings. It was while he was demonstrating this skill in a local mall that he was spotted by a physicist, who encouraged him to study math at university. Once there his talents became apparent to his teachers, unleashing a blizzard of study, and now his memoir Struck By Genius. Struck By Genius is co-written with Maureen Seaberg, an author who specializes in writing about synesthesia, where pathways in the brain are mixed so that stimulation of one generates an automatic response from another, such as letters or numbers being color-coded.
Padgett's brain has been scanned with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines by Associate Professor Berit Brogaard of the University of Miami. She reported in Neurocase that when Padgett was shown images that brought out his skills his left parietal cortex lit up most strongly as drawing blood flow. The area integrates information from different senses. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to turn this part of Padgett's brain down temporarily deprived him of his capacities.
Savants are very rare, but cases where extraordinary mental capacities are acquired as a result of brain injury or illness, rather than from birth, are rarer still.
The feats of memory, perception and calculation that savants are capable of almost always come with a price. In Padgett's case the hard-partying individual of his youth also developed PTSD, social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is hard to tell to what extent these are coincidental products of the manner in which his injury came about or necessary features for his skills to emerge. For Padgett, this was a price worth paying. “It's so good, I can't even describe it,” he told Live Science.
Just as Brogaard has used TMS to turn Padgett's talents down on a temporary basis, some dream of being able to use the same method to temporarily give anyone exceptional creativity, breathtaking memory or barely imaginable computational power. Professor Allan Snyder of the University of Sydney has been claiming some success with experiments along these lines. While such work may also affect the capacity of other parts of the brain to do the things we need for everyday living, TMS' boosters hope it will allow us to turn different functions on and off at will.