What worries me about the Jason Padgett story

By Tim Worstall , written on April 22, 2014

From The News Desk

Two things that worry me about the Jason Padgett story in fact. Padgett being the guy who got punched in the head and turned into a mathematical savant as a result:

A self-proclaimed former "goof" and college dropout has told how he became a maths genius after suffering a traumatic brain injury

Jason Padgett is a "sudden savant" who sees elaborate geometric shapes in every day objects and has the ability to recreate them by hand.

Among his drawings of fractals, the repeating geometric patterns which are the building blocks of everything in the known universe, is a visualisation of Hawking radiation, the substance emitted from a micro black hole, which took him nine months to create.

Experts say there are only about 40 people with acquired ­savant syndrome in the world. Padgett tells us of his former goof status by pointing out that all he liked to do was hang out and have a drink with his friends at the bar. And as someone who insists that the existence of beer proves that God loves us and wants us to be happy I'm not all that sure that being turned into a savant is an advance on this position, blow to the head or not.

The second thing is my deep and abiding cynicism about human beings. Which brings us to the subject of retrophrenology and something else that Padgett is saying:

Experts say Mr Padgett's condition is proof that everyone is capable of astonishing feats of mental prowess – if only they could untap the right part of their brain.

In his memoir, “Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel," which is published this week, he writes: “I believe I am living proof that these powers lie dormant in all of us.”

Well, yes, but what worries is that people will go around trying to get concussion to unlock those powers.

One of the joys of the Terry Pratchett novels* is that he uses this rather human logic to extremes at times. At one point in the series phrenology becomes a popular "science". The idea that the shape of your skull says something about your character and brain power. Which leads, inexorably, to the invention of retrophrenology, where changing the shape of the skull by means of a variety of hammers leads to a change in one's character and brain power. That last, sometimes terminally.

It's most certainly true that brain injury can change brain action. That's pretty much the way that people used to explore brain activity in the days before MRI machines. Find someone with an interesting skull problem, an arrow through it, someone who aimed a gun at their own temple and missed, and see what it was that they could or couldn't still do. And it's common enough to see a newspaper story of someone who has had a stroke or the like reported as now speaking with an accent from some part of the world they've never experienced. Odd things, brains.

But it does worry me slightly that someone is halfway to advocating blows to the head to unlock the inner genius. For cynical as I am I can imagine others taking that next logical leap and doing it on purpose.

[image via wikimedia]