HEAD-BEATING TRANSFORMS TEENAGE SLOB INTO CREATIVE VIRTUOSO
A VIOLENT ATTACK TRANSFORMS TEENAGE DROPOUT INTO BOY-WONDER
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.