Can we all have a beautiful mind? The strange case of Jason Padgett
Jason may be living proof that dormant genius potentials exist in us all.
Jason never made it past pre-algebra. But after a mugging he suddenly understood the theories behind complex math and physics. He was just never exposed to the things he now knew — his abilities were not old memories of prior teachings suddenly freed up. There were no such memories. He was arriving independently at great truths. He saw geometric forms everywhere from the synesthesia he also acquired from his injuries and meticulously drew the patterns. He never was able to sketch anything well before, but now crystalline grids flew out of his pencil lead and helped him solve math problems.
Jason has since submitted to several brain scans when I requested that Dr. Berit Brogaard, a fellow synesthete and conference colleague, study him. They confirmed his gifts.
The “Dean of Savants,” Darold Treffert, above with Jason today, who treated Kim Peek (the inspiration for the savant character in the movie Rain Man) also examined Jason during a trip we made to his office in Wisconsin and contends that nothing was added or created when he was injured. Rather innate, dormant skills he calls “factory-installed software” or “genetic memory” were released.
And Dr. Allan Snyder told me he considers Jason living proof of his own similar theories of dormant potentials. Dr. Snyder has invented a “Creativity Cap” which induces savant-like states in ordinary people. Put on the cap, a trans cranial magnetic stimulator, and suddenly go from drawing stick figures to beautifully rendered drawings. Take it off, and 45 minutes later, you’re “normal” again.
Jason’s case is one for the ages. Doctors say that our minds are usually “under the tyranny” of the left hemisphere of the brain and don’t perform at the levels seen when brains are sometimes diseased or injured, like Jason’s. Could we one day unlock the secrets of all our inner geniuses?
The co-chair of President Barack Obama’s new BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Dr. William Newsome of Stanford University told me that Jason’s case may be crucial in the next generation of research.
“Jason’s case — and other cases like his, in which individuals develop new and specialized cognitive capabilities after brain injury — will be important sources of insight for us as we move forward with the BRAIN initiative,” said Dr. Newsome. “It has long been the case that individuals who experience dramatic change in their conscious experience or behavior after an injury have taught us new things about the way the brain works.” He explained that in the 19th century, we learned about the role of the frontal cortex in cognitive control, planning and emotional regulation from a man named Phineas Gage, who suffered a traumatic brain injury when an iron rod was driven through his head in a construction accident.
“In the latter half of the 20th century, our understanding about the way human memory works was radically changed by a man who had experimental surgery to relieve epilepsy, which left him unable to form new short-term memories while his pre-surgery long-term memories remained intact.”
And he believes that we will continue to learn more about how the brain works from individuals who are recovering from brain injury today.
“Modern medicine has given us incredible opportunities to aid the recovery of people who have suffered traumatic injuries, and new technologies in neuroscience will help us visualize and understand what has really happened in their brains. Extraordinary clinical cases like Jason’s, especially when examined using some of these new technologies, could give us insights into the brain that we would otherwise never have access to.”