HEAD-BEAT­ING TRANS­FORMS TEENAGE SLOB INTO CREATIVE VIR­TU­OSO

A VI­O­LENT AT­TACK TRANS­FORMS TEENAGE DROPOUT INTO BOY-WON­DER

Guru Magazine - - CONTENTS - BERIT BRO­GAARD KRIS­TIAN MAR­LOW GUEST CON­TRIB­U­TORS

Guest writ­ers Kris­tian Mar­low and Dr Bro­gaard tell the real-life story of Ja­son, who un­der­went a mirac­u­lous change af­ter a bru­tal mug­ging.

On Fri­day Septem­ber 13, 2002, 32year old Ja­son Pad­gett stopped by a lo­cal bar to pick up his friend. As he left, he no­ticed two pa­trons giv­ing him dirty looks. Th­ese bar thugs ad­vanced upon him and struck the back of his head, bring­ing him to the ground. His next mem­ory was of be­ing in a Ta­coma hos­pi­tal. For Ja­son, re­al­ity would never be the same again.

Af­ter a hasty in-and-out by the doc­tor, he was di­ag­nosed with in­ter­nal bleed­ing and a con­cus­sion and sent home to rest. But Ja­son barely made it home be­fore he sensed that some­thing was wrong – un­usu­ally freaky, in fact. Re­al­ity was bro­ken! Ja­son looked around at a grotesque, al­most eerie world: vases and win­dows would seem­ingly shat­ter spon­ta­neously. It was as if some­one had grabbed a rock and pow­er­fully tossed it at re­al­ity, cut­ting the con­tours of ev­ery­day ob­jects into tiny pieces. As cars moved away, re­al­ity split into ge­o­met­ri­cal pat­terns: light bounced off their shiny paint, rip­ping open empty air to re­veal rain­bows of right-an­gled tri­an­gles. To Ja­son’s dis­may, th­ese new vi­sions didn’t go away. Fright­ened, he locked him­self in­side his apart­ment and stayed there for three years. He left only when his reser­voir of canned beans was run­ning low. Ja­son also saw mo­tion dif­fer­ently. Af­ter his vi­o­lent at­tack, ob­jects no longer moved smoothly. In­stead, he saw mo­tion in ‘ pic­ture frames’. He was ap­par­ently suf­fer­ing from ‘mo­tion blind­ness’, an ex­cep­tion­ally rare con­di­tion that gives the ap­pear­ance that

re­al­ity is frozen. In 1983, Josef Zihl and his col­leagues wrote of a pa­tient (called ‘LM’) who had sus­tained dam­age to both sides of the brain (in an area known as the pos­te­rior tem­po­ral cor­tex). LM found pour­ing a cup of cof­fee nearly im­pos­si­ble “be­cause the fluid ap­peared to be frozen, like a glacier.” The frozen im­age would even­tu­ally be re­placed by an im­age of the cup over­flow­ing with cof­fee. Ja­son’s con­di­tion was sim­i­lar: though mo­tion did not ap­pear com­pletely frozen to him, it did seem dis­con­tin­u­ous. “It is as if some­one is press­ing the pause but­ton on a video very quickly,” Ja­son told us. Thank­fully, be­cause his ‘pic­ture frames’ are re­placed by new im­ages very quickly, Ja­son could pour a cup of cof­fee as well as we can. In 2005, Ja­son de­cided to draw what he saw when he looked at light bounc­ing off a car win­dow. He grabbed a pen­cil and cre­ated a strik­ing im­age us­ing only straight lines. Putting pen­cil to pa­per helped Ja­son deal with the new world he had found him­self in. Even­tu­ally he re­turned to his job as a fur­ni­ture store sales per­son – and, from his first day back, started dec­o­rat­ing the white walls with his col­or­ful draw­ings. Cus­tomers were cu­ri­ous about the pe­cu­liar but fas­ci­nat­ing art­work. “Who made them?” they asked. “I did,” the skinny, au­to­di­dact artist would re­ply. “They are hand-drawn. If you look at them close up, you can see it for your­self.” Peo­ple were shocked: Who knew the dorky guy in the fur­ni­ture store could draw? Soon enough, most lo­cals in town were talk­ing about the ec­cen­tric man in the fur­ni­ture store who was draw­ing amaz­ingly com­plex im­ages by hand. Ja­son couldn’t think about any­thing but pat­terns all day long. But, as time went by, he re­alised that, while his draw­ings cap­ti­vated peo­ple’s at­ten­tion, most couldn’t un­der­stand his ex­pla­na­tions for his cre­ations. He might as well have spo­ken Rus­sian! Try as he may, he couldn’t ex­plain why, but had the odd sense that his im­agery some­how re­lated to math­e­mat­ics. In an at­tempt to ease his frus­tra­tions, a math­e­ma­ti­cian friend ad­vised him that if he wanted to make him­self un­der­stood, he would have to learn to speak the lan­guage of math­e­mat­ics. Un­til then, Ja­son’s only in­ter­ests had been get­ting drunk (and get­ting women), but ea­ger to find an­swers, he signed up for a trigonom­e­try class and a cou­ple of cal­cu­lus

classes at a lo­cal com­mu­nity col­lege. A school­dropout, Ja­son was about to em­bark on a truly ex­cit­ing jour­ney. Last time, Ja­son had cheated on his geom­e­try high school exam. Now he couldn’t get enough. He ab­sorbed math­e­mat­ics with en­thu­si­asm and, af­ter learn­ing the basics, Ja­son found him­self un­der­stand­ing math­e­mat­ics in terms of the im­ages he con­tin­u­ously saw around him. Over time, he be­gan to in­tu­itively form im­ages for math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­lae in his mind’s eye. He didn’t stop his sketch­ing and even­tu­ally started sub­mit­ting his draw­ings to com­pe­ti­tions, achiev­ing recog­ni­tion in 2010 as Best In­ter­na­tional New­comer in the Art Basel Mi­ami Beach Com­pe­ti­tion.

We meet Ja­son

It was a chance en­counter with New York author and jour­nal­ist Mau­reen Se­aberg that first put us in con­tact with Ja­son. Af­ter see­ing him on the lo­cal news in Ta­coma, Mau­reen re­alised that he had not yet met any sci­en­tists work­ing on con­di­tions such as his. She knew our lab was look­ing for new sub­jects and so rec­om­mended that he con­tact us to see if we could find out what was go­ing on in his brain. Af­ter com­plet­ing ini­tial in­ter­views and stan­dard tests, we per­formed a func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing study (fMRI) in col­lab­o­ra­tion with neu­ro­sci­en­tists Simo Vanni and Juha Sil­vanto from the Re­search Unit and Mag­netic Imag­ing Cen­tre at Aalto Univer­sity in Fin­land. Un­like reg­u­lar MRI brain scans, this type of imag­ing al­lows us to see which ar­eas of the brain be­come ac­tive when some­one per­forms a par­tic­u­lar task. As any­one who has had an MRI can tes­tify, get­ting in­side a brain scan­ner is a tight squeeze: think Tom Cruise crawl­ing through the vents in Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble. Once in­side a scan­ner, sub­jects have to lie ex­tremely still for the brain im­ages to come out clearly. Given th­ese re­stric­tions, we weren’t able to test Ja­son’s brain ac­tiv­ity while he drew his com­plex im­ages. In­stead, we chose to fo­cus on the vi­sions (which we call ‘synes­thetic im­ages’) that Ja­son ex­pe­ri­ences when he looks at math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­lae. We worked with Ja­son to cre­ate one list of for­mu­lae that caused him to ex­pe­ri­ence com­plex ge­o­met­ri­cal im­ages and an­other list that an­other list that didn’t. In­side the brain scan­ner Ja­son was shown the for­mu­lae, one at a time, in a ran­dom or­der. We then stud­ied the dif­fer­ences in his brain ac­tiv­ity when look­ing at im­age-in­duc­ing ver­sus non-in­duc­ing for­mu­lae. What we found was sur­pris­ing. The pop­u­lar ex­pla­na­tion for the emer­gence of spe­cial tal­ents af­ter brain in­jury, such as artis­tic or mu­si­cal abil­i­ties, is that cer­tain re­gions of the left brain – re­spon­si­ble for the in­hi­bi­tion of ‘creative right brain’ – have been dam­aged. This loss of the left brain re­sults in the hy­per­ac­ti­va­tion of the

right brain, giv­ing rise to height­ened cre­ativ­ity. Re­search has shown that most cases of spe­cial tal­ent in­volve in­jury to the left side of the brain, sup­port­ing this the­ory. But our re­sults showed that, for Ja­son, his vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ences weren’t ac­tu­ally oc­cur­ring in the right side of his brain, but the left! Our find­ing means that there needs to be a re­think in the ac­cepted the­o­ries for ‘ac­quired sa­vant syn­drome’.

In­side the prodigy’s mind

It is dif­fi­cult to say what sort of brain in­jury took place when Ja­son was mugged. When some­one is hit on one side of the head, brain dam­age may oc­cur on both sides: a force­ful im­pact makes the brain vi­o­lently bounce back and forth in­side the skull. Also, Ja­son was hit and kicked many times on both sides of the head when he had col­lapsed, which may have in­jured many parts of his brain. How­ever, our re­sults do of­fer us some in­sight into what hap­pened on that fate­ful day. The ini­tial blows that ren­dered him un­con­scious landed on the right side to­wards the back of his skull; it is un­derneath th­ese lo­ca­tions where the re­gions of the vis­ual cor­tex process vis­ual properties such as ob­ject bound­ary and color. Dam­age here is prob­a­bly what pre­vents him from see­ing con­tin­u­ous mo­tion. Our func­tional MRI study also helps to ex­plain why Ja­son has vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ences. We knew that the left side of the brain is nor­mally largely re­spon­si­ble for pro­duc­ing vis­ual im­ages, which goes hand-in-hand with Ja­son’s hal­lu­ci­na­tions. When Ja­son en­rolled in com­mu­nity col­lege he sud­denly had to make sense of math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions, so it is likely that his brain turned this new learn­ing into com­plex im­agery. Re­mark­ably, th­ese vis­ual im­ages prob­a­bly helped him un­der­stand tricky new math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts. Our study had one fi­nal sur­prise. Pre­vi­ous re­search into such vis­ual hal­lu­ci­na­tions have con­sis­tently shown in­creased ac­tiv­ity in the re­gion at the very back of the brain that pro­cesses vis­ual in­for­ma­tion – the vis­ual cor­tex. So, we ex­pected this area to also be­come ac­ti­vated when Ja­son ex­pe­ri­enced math­e­mat­i­cal im­agery – but it didn’t. In­stead sev­eral ar­eas with al­to­gether dif­fer­ent func­tions – think­ing in three di­men­sions, plan­ning and cal­cu­lat­ing – were stim­u­lated. (see side­box)

The main ac­tiv­ity as­so­ci­ated with the im­age-gen­er­at­ing equa­tions in Ja­son was found in an area of the tem­po­ral cor­tex, lo­cated on the side of the head, and ar­eas of the pari­etal cor­tex, lo­cated on top of the head. The tem­po­ral cor­tex is used when think­ing and plan­ning about things in three di­men­sions. The pari­etal cor­tex is as­so­ci­ated with nu­mer­ous func­tions, in­clud­ing pre­par­ing for spon­ta­neous ac­tion and ev­ery­day math­e­mat­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, such as count­ing.

De­spite th­ese re­mark­able in­sights, we can­not say on the ba­sis of Ja­son’s brain scans why his brain pro­duces equa­tion-in­duced ge­o­met­ri­cal vi­sions. We think it could be his fail­ure to see con­tin­u­ous move­ment that trig­gers his vi­sions: His brain may in­ter­pret frag­mented, over­lap­ping im­ages of mov­ing ob­jects as com­plex ge­o­met­ri­cal pat­terns. All of this, of course, will re­main spec­u­la­tive un­til scan­ning tech­nol­ogy be­comes more sen­si­tive. Ja­son’s as­sault was trau­matic and dev­as­tat­ing. For most peo­ple, such an or­deal would change their life for the worst. He is one of the lucky ones – a di­rec­tion­less dropout trans­formed into an artist and math­e­mat­i­cal prodigy. It gives us all hope, for fur­ther un­lock­ing Ja­son’s mind may some­day show us how to turn the tragedy of brain dam­age into some­thing good.

LEFT: ‘Pi’ drawn by Ja­son Pad­gett

BE­LOW: Ja­son be­ing tested for me­tal be­fore the fMRI scan.

RIGHT: Ja­son in 1988. His only in­ter­ests were to in al­co­hol, women and a com­bi­na­tion of the two.

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