Brain in­jury al­ters au­thor’s world view

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by CindyMarie Small

IMAG­INE you’re a care­free, bar-hop­ping 31-yearold head­ing home af­ter an­other fun-filled night of karaoke with friends. Just out­side the bar, you’re brought to your knees by fel­low pa­trons who, while mug­ging you, vi­o­lently punch and kick your head un­til you suf­fer a trau­matic brain in­jury (TBI) that al­ters your brain aand the way you see the world. Imag­ine that de­spite the TBI, post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der (OCD), phys­i­cal pain, de­pres­sion, years of self-im­posed isolation and per­son­al­ity change that re­sult from your at­tack, you are ac­tu­ally grate­ful for the changed state of your brain — to the point that, were it pos­si­ble, you wouldn’t re­turn to your for­mer “nor­mal” view of the world. Ja­son Pad­gett doesn’t have to imag­ine it — he has lived it. Struck by Ge­nius tells the true story of how a brain in­jury trans­formed Ta­coma, Wash.-based Pad­gett from a fun-lov­ing, gre­gar­i­ous thrill-seeker to a math geek ex­traor­di­naire. Pad­gett’s 2002 TBI left him with ac­quired savant syn­drome and ac­quired synes­the­sia. Savant syn­drome refers to an ex­cep­tional depth of knowl­edge in one spe­cific field, most of­ten linked to some form of neu­rode­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­der such as autism spec­trum dis­or­der or, in Pad­gett’s case, a brain in­jury. For­tu­nately for Pad­gett, he re­mains high-func­tion­ing de­spite his TBI and sub­se­quent ac­quired savant syn­drome in ge­om­e­try. Synes­the­sia, a blend­ing of the senses that can oc­cur in many dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions, af­fects an es­ti­mated four per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. A synes­thete might see letters of the al­pha­bet with very spe­cific colours at­tached to them, num­bers may have a par­tic­u­lar shape or words may have par­tic­u­lar tastes. New York-based co-au­thor Mau­reen Se­aberg has a mul­ti­ple kinds of synes­the­sia. Along with coloured num­bers, letters, days of the week and months, Se­aberg sees colours when she hears mu­sic, as de­tailed in her first book, Tast­ing the Uni­verse: People Who See Col­ors in Words and Rain­bows in Sym­phonies. The ac­quired forms of both savant syn­drome and synes­the­sia are quite rare, and Pad­gett may be the first per­son to ac­quire both at once. Pad­gett’s synes­the­sia ren­ders the world as a study in frac­tal ge­om­e­try — as if the world is dis­tilled into chop­pily mov­ing pix­els that Pad­gett can place on a grid, re­veal­ing the geo­met­ric beauty un­der­ly­ing ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing in the world. It’s in this new­found re­spect for (and ob­ses­sion with) ge­om­e­try that the pre­vi­ously math-averse Pad­gett dis­cov­ers his savant ca­pac­ity. Ea­ger to doc­u­ment the way the world re­veals it­self to him, Pad­gett be­gins draw­ing the com­plex ge­o­met­ri­cal pat­terns he sees. The vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of sim­ple ge­o­met­ri­cal equa­tions seem ob­vi­ous to him now. He finds his “in­tel­lec­tual pas­sion” when he notices the way a re­flected sun­beam may in­di­cate a new way of mea­sur­ing the value of pi. “To me, that ir­ra­tional num­ber be­came a fun­da­men­tal build­ing block of ev­ery­thing around me, a sig­ni­fier of na­ture’s per­fect sym­me­try, re­peated over and over through­out our world. I saw it every­where I looked with my new brain: in light re­flected off glass, in the corona of a street lamp, even in the vir­tual scaf­fold­ing of a rain­bow.” Along with Pad­gett’s, there are other fas­ci­nat­ing cases of sa­van­tism and synes­the­sia — both ac­quired and in­born — scat­tered through­out Struck by Ge­nius. These cases, and the sim­ply stated neu­ro­sci­en­tific the­o­ries that ex­plain them, are some of the most cap­ti­vat­ing parts of the book. Per­haps it’s be­cause the phe­nom­ena are so in­trigu­ing that, in jux­ta­po­si­tion, much of the book feels plod­ding and mun­dane. Not that Pad­gett’s story is in or­di­nary; the reader is happy when he over­comes his ac­quired ago­ra­pho­bia and OCD and en­rols in col­lege math classes af­ter more than three years of hid­ing in his home. Fam­ily tragedies amass as he learns to deal with his “new” brain. But some­thing about the book feels un­bal­anced. Pad­gett says of his wife and daugh­ter, “I also knew it was hard for them and tir­ing to hear about my is­sues all the time — both the eu­phoric math mono­logues and the down­times when I didn’t feel well.” There are times the reader may feel the same. CindyMarie Small is a for­mer soloist

with the Royal Win­nipeg Bal­let.

Struck by Ge­nius: How a Brain In­jury Made Me a Math­e­mat­i­cal Marvel

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