If you could see the world through my eyes, you would know how perfect it is, how much order runs through it, and how much structure is hidden in its tiniest parts. We’re so often victims of things—I see the violence too, the disease, the poverty stretching far and wide—but the universe itself and everything we can touch and all that we are is made of the most beautiful geometric patterns imaginable. I know because they’re right in front of me. Because of a traumatic brain injury, the result of a brutal physical attack, I’ve been able to see these patterns for over a decade. This change in my perception was really a change in my brain function, the result of the injury and the extraordinary and mostly positive way my brain healed. All of a sudden, the patterns were just . . . there, and I realize now that my injury was a rare gift. I’m lucky to have survived, but for me, the real miracle—what really saved me—was being introduced to and almost overwhelmed by the mathematical grace of the universe.
There’s a park in my town of Tacoma, Washington, that I like to walk through in the mornings before work. I see the trees that line its path as anyone would, the branches and the bark, but I see a geometrical blueprint laid on top of them too. I see triangular patterns emerging from the leaves, reminding me of the Pythagorean theorem, as if it’s unfolding in the air, proving to me over and over again what the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras deduced thousands of years ago: the sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle (a triangle in which one angle is a right angle, or 90 degrees) equals the square of its hypotenuse. I don’t need a calculator to know that the simple formula most of us learned in school—a2 + b2 = c2—is true; I can see it instantly in the trees all around me. To me, a tree is more than its geometry, but geometry is also far more than most people realize. I think it’s everything.
I remember reading that Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist (and one of my heroes), said that we cannot understand the universe until we have learned its language. Speaking of the universe, he said, “It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.”
This rings true for me. I see this hidden language of the world before my eyes.
Doctors tell me that nothing in my brain was newly created or added when I was injured. Rather, innate but dormant skills were released. This theory comes from psychiatrist Darold Treffert, who is considered the world’s leading authority on savants and acquired savants. He treated the late Kim Peek (the inspiration for the savant character in the movie Rain Man), a megasavant who memorized twelve thousand books, including the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but who had so many physical challenges that he had to rely on his father for his most basic needs. When I met with Dr. Treffert in his hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, he told me that these innate skills are, in his words, “factory-installed software” or “genetic” memory. After interviewing me in his office and in his home, he declared that my acquired synesthesia and savant syndrome was self-evident, and he also suggested that all of us have extraordinary skills just beneath the surface, much as birds innately know how to fly in a V-formation and fish know how to swim in a school. Why the brain suppresses these remarkable abilities is still a mystery, but sometimes, when the brain is diseased or damaged, it relents and unleashes the inner genius. This isn’t just my story. It’s the story of the potential secreted away in all of us.
The first thing I do every morning is make my way to the bathroom, turn on the faucet, and let the sink fill up. I watch the water flow and wonder why it doesn’t sound like the strumming of tightly wound strings. The structure of flowing water vibrates in a specific geometric form and frequency to me, and if it were to freeze midstream, I’d see a web, but one made up of tiny crystals rather than spider’s silk. If I could hear it after it froze, it would sound like tinkling glass shards falling into the basin. I like to start my days with water. It may slip through my fingers, but it is a constant comfort.
I look at myself in the mirror and make sure my hair’s not getting too long. I like it cropped close now. I grab my toothbrush and count how many times I run it through the water while brushing my teeth. It has to be exactly sixteen times. I don’t know why I chose that number, but it’s fixed in my mind like my street address or my zip code. I try not to worry about it too much and stare back at the intriguing water webs, working to memorize all of the angles so that I can draw a picture of the image later. I’ll probably spend hours with a pencil and ruler later on, capturing on paper every inch of the razor-sharp symmetry.
Next, I walk into the living room and throw back the drapes. If it’s a clear day, I’m in for a real show. The sun comes shining through the leaves of the trees like a million little lights, as if the leaves are blades and they cut the sun up into a million diamonds. Then the rays fan out between the leaves, falling over them like an illuminated net. Watching this, I always think of the famous double-slit experiment, in which light behaves like a particle and a wave at the same time. My friends tell me that to them, it’s just the sun shining through the trees. I can barely remember a time when I saw the world the way most everyone else does.
On an overcast or stormy day, I pay more attention to the branches swaying in the wind. The movements are choppy and discrete, like a series of frames of a film, with black lines separating each image. At first, I got dizzy when this happened, and I had to grab the back of a chair or lean against a wall. Now I’m used to it, though I still have moments of vertigo.
Next I move on to the kitchen and put on some coffee. It’s one of my routines, but it thrills me every single time I watch the cream being stirred into the brew. That perfect spiral is an important shape to me. It’s a fractal—a repetitive geometric form found everywhere in nature, from the shell of a nautilus up to the Milky Way galaxy. Suddenly it’s not just my morning cup of joe—awesome as the coffee in the Pacific Northwest is—it’s geometry speaking to me again. And I never get tired of it.
I sit down at the kitchen table and add to whatever sketch I’m working on; lately, I’ve been drawing the coffee-and-cream spiral. I’m a real perfectionist and I can stay in my seat for hours and draw; usually, I do this until I have to leave for work. When it’s finally time to go, I put on my “uniform”—a button-down shirt and jeans. I like to look professional but I’m not really one to wear a suit and I often have to lift heavy things or repair stuff at work. I make sure I close the door behind me carefully. I always have to check and double-check and triple-check the locks. Then I can go.
I used to drive my wife, Elena, to school in the morning. I did it partly because I like spending as much time as possible with her, but it was also a matter of her safety. Until very recently, w...