Seventeen years ago, Jason Padgett was a drunk futon salesman living in Tacoma, Washington. Today, he’s a genius of theoretical mathematics. He has a talent for drawing fractals by hand, and can see complex numerical relationships unfold like flowers before his eyes. What caused this drastic transformation in Jason Padgett? He got hit in the head really, really hard.
In an interview with the BBC, Jason Padgett describes his life before math in a way not-uncommon to many directionless young adults:
“I was very shallow. Life rotated around girls, partying, drinking, waking up with a hangover and then going out and chasing girls and going out to bars again.”
He says he never had an interest in math, thought it was stupid and useless, and thought himself smarter-than-the-average-bear for having realized it. Jason Padgett was resigned and quite comfortable with his cyclical existence. On Friday, the 13th of September, 2002, his life changed completely.
Padgett and his friends were robbed and assaulted outside a karaoke bar. Padgett sustained a hard punch to the gut, followed by an even harder punch to the head, and a flash of white light. When he came to, he dragged himself to a hospital, mercifully located across the street, and was told he had a concussion and a bleeding kidney.
Soon after, things started to change for Jason Padgett, and not for the better. Concussions are serious business, and they cause serious harm. Jason began to experience classic symptoms of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD). He became deathly afraid of germs, and grew more and more reclusive. He eventually stopped leaving the house except to stock up on food. He says:
“I just remember nailing blankets and towels over all the windows in the house…I remember actually using this spray foam and gluing the front door shut.”
But during all this, there were deeper changes happening to the way Jason Padgett saw the world, literally.
“Everything that was curved looked like it was slightly pixelated. “Water coming down the drain didn’t look like it was a smooth, flowing thing anymore, it looked like these little tangent lines.
I was surprised…confused. it was beautiful but it was also scary at the same time.”
As reality changed around him, Jason’s mind turned to the deeper, weirder questions. Life, the universe, and everything. He spent his time as a hermit reading about physics and mathematics. When he stumbled on a webpage devoted to fractals, recursive patterns in which the smaller parts reflect the whole, he says it struck a deep chord in him.
Padgett began drawing fractals, obsessively. He believed that they held the key to all the secrets of the universe, and he brought his drawings with him whenever he did make rare trips outside his house. One day, a passerby saw him working on one of these drawings. The stranger asked him what he was drawing and Padgett replied:
“I’m trying to describe the discrete structure of space time based on Planck length and quantum black holes.”
Padgett was lucky that this stranger was a physicist and not a police officer. The man encouraged Padgett to take classes in mathematics, which he did. Padgett enrolled in community college, began to get treatment for his OCD, and met the woman who would become his wife.
He turned his life around, but it didn’t explain why he saw the world the way he did. While watching TV one day, Padgett heard an interview with a man who was a so-called “savant,” and who described the world exactly as Padgett saw it:
“I would always describe that maths was shapes not numbers and that was the first time I’d heard anybody but me talk about what numbers looked like.”
With a new lead to follow, Padgett made contact with a cognitive neuroscientist named Berit Brogaard. Brogaard hypothesized that Padgett had form of synesthesia, a condition where information processing centers in the brain are abnormally connected—some synesthetes smell colors, some hear textures, Padgett sees numbers. To test this, Brogaard brought Padgett to the Brain Research Unit of Aalto University in Helsinki and he underwent a series of tests, where researchers would show him equations and see which parts of his brain lit up. Padgett says:
“They found that I had access to parts of the brain that we don’t have conscious access to and also the visual cortex was working in conjunction with the part of the brain that does mathematics, which obviously makes sense.”
He was formally diagnosed with a form of synesthesia and acquired savant syndrome. Now Padgett says he wants to show people the beauty that he sees in the world:
“You should be walking around in absolute amazement at all times that reality even exists. I’m having this mathematical awakening and all around us is absolute magic or about as close as you can get to magic.”
Which, all things considered, is a pretty cool place to find yourself after a violent robbery. On the subject of magic, I would advise Mr. Padgett to remember that this all started on Friday the 13th. Spooky is as spooky does, after all.