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Brain injury alters author's world view

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Imagine you're a carefree, bar-hopping 31-year-old 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 and 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 8:47 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting, adds book jacket.

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