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article on the brain and creativity.... - a world of possibility
article on the brain and creativity....
Found in the journal of niyabinghi thanks to magpiegeese

Here is the actual article with images and stuff

Brad Evenson
National Post

Scientists have viewed distant galaxies, but until recently they knew next to nothing about why people sing, paint and write poetry. Alone among species, we create art as naturally as we breathe and walk. Now, using powerful tools to view the brain, scientists are making surprising discoveries. In a four-part series starting today, Brad Evenson explores recent findings about art and the brain.

- - -

Jancy Chang began losing her mind in tiny brushstrokes. In the mid-1980s, the San Francisco high school art teacher noticed she had trouble reading. Soon, she found it difficult to plan lessons. At first, she hid her problems by getting her teenage son to help her. But later, words would slip from her grasp and eventually she could not remember the names of any of her students or control her classroom. Like a portrait painted in reverse, the familiar likeness of Jancy Chang was becoming a blank canvas.

Yet at the same time, a strange but exciting image was taking its place.

Two years before retiring in 1995, Ms. Chang abandoned her solitary art studio, where she painted demure watercolours of Chinese folklore. Paper and pen in hand, she began sketching people in cafés and at concerts. The ink drawings were less refined than her earlier work, but more intriguing. Her personality changed, too. Ordinarily a reserved woman, Ms. Chang grew uncharacteristically friendly, ignoring social cues and entering the conversations of strangers.

Suddenly, in 1997, amid a growing inability to speak or read, Ms. Chang produced some of her wildest and most original paintings. The constraints of her formal training slipped away. She splashed large swatches of red, turquoise and purple acrylics on paper.

She painted male nudes with distinctly sexual overtones. One piece, of two sumo wrestlers locked in struggle, showed an emotional side, as though in existential conflict for her mind.

In a way, they were.

In 2000, Ms. Chang's family brought her to see Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California in San Francisco. Dr. Miller put her through a series of tests, including an MRI scan, and diagnosed her with frontotemporal dementia, or FTD.

In plain terms, the brain cells between her left eye and ear were dying, taking away her powers of language, social graces and reasoning. As many as 400,000 North Americans suffer varying degrees of FTD. In its most advanced form, dementia strips away the brain's ability to function. There is no cure.

Ms. Chang's case, described last month in Neurology magazine, raises a series of questions: Where in the brain does artistic creativity reside? Can the "damaged" mind give rise to true art?

Few doctors in the world know more about frontotemporal dementia, or the brief blossom of creativity it can render, than Dr. Miller.

"One of the tragic aspects of it is the beginning of creativity heralds the onset of disease," he says. "And as the disease progresses, we go through a period where someone perfects the artistic skill, so it steadily improves as the disease is progressing, and then the disease eventually overwhelms the process and eventually the creativity is gone."

Dr. Miller made the link between dementia and creativity quite serendipitously in the mid-1990s. An FTD patient's son mentioned his dad, who had never shown an interest in art, had taken up painting. Dr. Miller had read a few studies about Alzheimer's disease, a different form of dementia, and assumed his patient's work was getting worse, like his language skills and emotional control. Far from it, the son said -- it was getting better.

"I didn't really believe it, but he sent me a series of paintings over a 10-year period and I saw this incredible blossoming of art rather than its deterioration," Dr. Miller says.

Dr. Miller now finds himself drawn to galleries, gazing with as much curiosity as awe.

"I think about the art and what parts of the brain it came from and what the uniqueness of that artist was, how I enjoy looking at the piece. It's affected me a lot."

Other doctors have also been surprised by their patients' newfound creativity.

Dr. Sandra Black, head of neurology at Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, has an elderly FTD patient who can no longer speak or understand words, but has taken a fresh interest in playing the piano.

"Music is a form of expression for her," says Dr. Black. "It's still remarkable because she actually reads [sheet music]. Yet she can't understand a single spoken or written word."

Dr. Black finds this curious, because reading musical notes strikes her as the kind of analytical task the left brain might ordinarily do.

These patients are a distinct minority. When Dr. Miller combed the records of hundreds of his FTD patients, he discovered the creative outburst happened most often in those with left-brain damage.

In general, the left hemisphere of the brain controls language, memory and emotional control, while the right side is dominant in visual and musical ability. Damage to the left hemisphere may liberate the right side to express itself.

Dr. Miller began to think of the left side of healthy brains as a bully, suppressing the creative instincts of the other side.

"I've wondered whether this dominant hemisphere which shapes our linguistic perceptions of the world may in some ways dampen our visual ways of thinking, which is, I think, at the core of great art," he says.

Doctors have seen close parallels between FTD patients such as Ms. Chang and so-called autistic savants, people stricken with deep mental and social deficits but also mysterious talents. Most people are familiar with Dustin Hoffman's character, Raymond, in the movie Rain Man, an autistic savant who could perform staggering feats of arithmetic. But relatively few know the story of Nadia, a young British autistic girl who began, at three years of age, to draw sophisticated line sketches of galloping horses. While most people draw by sketching an outline first, Nadia would draw a nose, then a tail or hoof, then fill in the missing portions later, always with faultless composition. The sketches drew comparisons with those of Rembrandt.

However, when Nadia began learning to speak at age six, she lost her drawing abilities.

Neurologists were fascinated with Nadia, whose brief period of creativity in the 1970s took place before the development of high-tech brain scanning machines. So when Dr. Miller heard about a young San Francisco autistic boy, Dane Bottino, who had shown similar art skills in the early 1990s, including a compulsion to draw horses, Dr. Miller took images of his brain. He found a pattern he was familiar with in dementia patients: diminished blood flow and nerve firing to the left side of the brain. Now 15, Dane has recently shown a talent for music and has been found to have perfect pitch.

But how is the creativity of people with damaged brains to be judged? Must a person be judged sane and competent to be a genius? Clearly not. Vincent Van Gogh had a family history of depression, he drank heavily, he once ate his lead paints in a fruitless effort to kill himself, which undoubtedly harmed his brain. Yet even while living in an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, he produced some of his finest works.

Ironically, while the art world accepts the emotional disturbance of a Van Gogh, Francisco Goya or Jackson Pollock, it is uncertain how to embrace work done by people with brain disease, like the great American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

In the early 1980s, it became obvious de Kooning was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He could no longer recognize friends, his eyes dulled and he shuffled from room to room in his pyjamas.

He was not, however, willing to relinquish his brushes, and continued to paint in his massive Long Island studio.

Instead of his usual splashes and drips of paint, de Kooning's strokes now glided across the canvas, eerily calm and oceanic.

Once news of de Kooning's brain disease leaked out, curators and art dealers began scrutinizing his work for evidence of his decline.

A few pulled paintings from their shows, convinced they were worthless.

Critics greeted the new works with patronizing contempt.

"These spectral, vacuous confections of ribbony paint are among the saddest things ever made by a once major artist," wrote Robert Hughes, Time magazine's art critic.

"I think initially there was an awful lot of suspicion and many rumours that his assistants were making the paintings," says New York art dealer Klaus Kertess, who has curated three major de Kooning exhibitions.

Kertess says opinions began to shift two years ago when the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged an exhibition of de Kooning's work from 1987, a time when he could no longer hold a conversation.

The Alzheimer's work is different, some critics say, but it has artistic merit.

"I think the paintings have a kind of lyricism and openness and grandeur of scale that de Kooning had never achieved earlier in his work," Kertess says.

"So there are merits that these paintings have and evidence of growth that I think is pretty amazing."

While Alzheimer's destroyed de Kooning's ability to remember people or places, he had an uncanny visual recall for paintings he'd made decades earlier.

"In the 1980s, instead of holding up his old paintings to use as visual cues, de Kooning found a projector in the basement of his studio to project tiny drawings from the 1960s on to large canvases that were 72-by-84 inches, and he'd use that as the beginning of a painting," says Kertess.

"And they weren't slavish copies -- it wasn't like he was copying the 1960s, but they were cues to new work."

By 1989, de Kooning reached the point where none of his faculties worked any more. He still painted, and flashes of brilliance would sometimes arise, but nothing that would hold a canvas together.

The work of de Kooning, Nadia and other artists with brain damage raises the possibility that possessing normal language skills might be an artistic handicap. Perhaps retreating to a silent studio of the mind helps the creative process.

Dr. Miller suspects it might.

"When someone makes a painting, they're usually not in a verbal mode," he notes.

"I think they're rarely speaking. They're probably turning off a lot of these language functions and thinking in a visual way. And I think maybe our frontotemporal dementia patients with a progressive language disorder are in a more permanent and non-linguistic state and that may in some way enhance their visual perceptions."

Indeed, some scientists believe many healthy people may harbour an inner Jancy Chang or Dane Bottino struggling to be heard amid the overwhelming din of speech.

At the forefront of this school is Alan Snyder, director of Australia's Centre for the Mind. He believes autistic savants and some people with temporal brain damage can tap directly into their latent abilities.

He believes all people have remarkable unconscious skills, such as math or drawing, which are blocked by our conscious mind.

To test this theory, Snyder's colleagues at the University of Adelaide used magnetic stimulation to inhibit the brain activity in the left frontotemporal lobe of 17 healthy volunteers.

Five of the 17 volunteers in this altered state made remarkable improvements in their horse drawing and math exercises -- tasks at which autistic savants excel.

Snyder suggests most people have a genius artist in residence in their brains, struggling to be heard.

"Buried deep in all our brains are phenomenal abilities, which we lose for some reason as we develop into 'normal' conceptual creatures," Snyder told a New York Times magazine reporter.

"But what if we could awaken them?"

Could the damage of strokes, or Alzheimer's, blunt trauma or electromagnetism awaken the artist within?

Dr. Miller has no doubts that the work of "damaged" minds such as de Kooning's or Ms. Chang's is true creativity.

"I think at the core of creativity is asymmetry, it's seeing things in a way that other people don't," he says.

"And I think that often, when people perceive the world differently than others, it's because one certain faculty is tuned up and others may actually be diminished. I think a lot of creative work is seen in people who are pretty asymmetrical."

bevenson@nationalpost.com; Part one of a four-part series.; On Monday: Music is among the first and last human experiences. No society has ever lived without it. Do our brains have a special module designed to process music?

© Copyright 2003 National Post
4 comments or Leave a comment
From: limbic_region Date: July 7th, 2003 07:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Hey sweetie,
If you really found this article interesting, there are a couple of books you should read.

The first is "The Man Who Tasted Shapes" by by Richard E. Cytowic
The main part of the book has little relevance as it is about synesthesia, which is experiencing multiple senses for an experience as the title suggests. The essays at the back though, are the reason for my handle. It was long thought that the cortex was what seperated us from the animals, but recent evidence suggests it is actually our Limbic Region is where creative thought is spawned as well as the well known things like emotion.

The second is "The Mind's Sky" by Timothy Ferris. Unfortunately, I believe it is out of print but I have at least one copy of it. In his book, he describes what he calls the Apollo process (at least that's what I think he called it). This is the filtration device the brain uses to make rational logical decisions. It extends the premise that completely bizarre, weird, and creative thoughts come bubbling up from lower in the brain. Imagine for instance you are in an engrossing conversation with someone and they say "throw me that glass of water". The very first inclination will be to throw it. Yadda yadda yadda.

It boils down to creativity comes from lower in the brain but is filtered out as noise by the cortex in most people. But with the good comes the bad so to speak.

Thanks for the underwear - made me laugh uncontrollably for a few minutes.
moowazz From: moowazz Date: July 7th, 2003 03:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
First, I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the underwear :)

Second, I am writing down the titles of the books and am going to see if there are any used copies of the one you said is out of print.

Thank you for all of the wonderful suggestions. The first one I've actually heard of, even read an article about it (not the book, but the multy experience thing).

I hope you are well, drop me a line and gimme an update if you get a chance

From: limbic_region Date: July 7th, 2003 04:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have at least one copy of it - usually when I find that a book I own is out of print, I buy a copy of it any time I see it in a store. If you are not lucky in finding one - let me know and I will dig through my library. If I have more than one - you can have one, if I only have one you are more than welcome to borrow it.

I forgot to say why scientists were re-thinking the Limbic Region as what separates us from other animals. The cortex is what gives us reasoning power and logical thought, but it is the Limbic Region that gives us abstract thinking. Concepts like money and love. When you think about it - the only thing that makes money worth anything is our belief that it does. Anyway - real things that are not tangible are beyond the grasp of other animals, though primates of course are closest to humans.

Now a word to the wise. Only believe half of what you read as far as articles in the realm of science. Typically these scientists work of grants and need to be "published" for visibility sake in order to get renewed funding. This doesn't mean it is all lies. It just means that a great deal more emphasis will be placed on implications and possibilities of the research than actual concrete findings.

I would care to wager, though I admittedly have no evidence, the degree of sensationalizing is directly proportional to the magazine it is published in. Something in Time is much more likely to be for show than something in Scientific American.

Anyway - will let you know if anything changes in my so called life.
saizai From: saizai Date: July 8th, 2003 09:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Another note: while sometimes, severe traumas can have interesting / beneficial side effects, most fo the time they're simply severe traumas. One has to be careful about that extrapolating and invalid logic...
4 comments or Leave a comment