Can math skills arise from a brain injury?

“A man became a math wiz after suffering brain injuries,” claimed the Washington Post. Hard to believe, isn’t it? We all know that brain injury can have a harmful effect on one’s mathematical abilities, but how could it possibility turn someone with no math skills into a “math wiz”?

Over the summer I read Jason Padgett’s memoir, Struck by Genius. It’s fascinating and compelling. The “math wiz” claim turns out to be only partially true…but still, it is partially true. After a severe mugging outside a bar in Tacoma, Padgett was left with a severe concussion, significant brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, synesthesia, paranoia, depression, and other ailments that are not surprising under the circumstances. But he also discovered that he had somehow developed an unusual version of Acquired Savant Syndrome. Struck by Genius tells the story of Padgett’s life, from his pre-injury days as a hard-partying jock with no interest in academics and no math beyond pre-algebra to his activities today as a minor celebrity who is hailed as a genius in math and science.

Well…let’s unpack that a bit. He isn’t a lightning calculator like the protagonist of Rain Man, nor a brilliant theoretician like the protagonist of Good Will Hunting. Both of those guys were admittedly fictional (though the former is based on a real person), but at least they’re well known to the public. Padgett’s genius lies in detecting, visualizing, and reproducing patterns in geometry and physics — especially fractals. How could this suddenly appear after a traumatic injury? For a long time no one could explain it, but recent fMRI tests have revealed a partial answer. (See the article above for more info.) Padgett’s interpretation is that the conclusion has to be that his new abilities are dormant in everyone, and that his injuries merely awakened their potential. Perhaps so. But don’t go out and get a brain injury in the hope that you can follow in his footsteps.



Categories: Books, Math