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Can brain damage lead to extraordinary art?

By: Jacob Silverman

What does an artist's brain look like? See more pictures of the brain.
SMC Images/Getty Images

After Sandy Allen had a large tumor removed from her brain's left temporal lobe, she found herself struggling with words. Reading became difficult. She couldn't follow plots or instructions. Some of these problems were to be expected, since Allen's tumor was in a part of her brain associated with speech (although areas throughout the brain affect language and communication). But the surgery had another, surprising effect: It seemingly "activated" her right brain, spurring an intense interest in art.

The right side of the brain is often associated with emotion and creativity. Prior to her surgery, Allen was more of a left-brained person, focused on science and medicine. But the flood of creative impulses unleashed by her surgery motivated her eventually to give up her medical studies and devote herself to art and art therapy. She told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that before her surgery, she "couldn't even draw a stick figure." Now she might spent two hours a day creating art, focusing on collages [source: Smith].

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So what happened? One theory is that when the language area, responsible for managing data, was damaged, Allen's brain was forced to think and act in a more creative, free-form manner. But some neuroscientists claim that Allen's apparently newfound devotion to art could simply be her personal way of responding to the trauma of having a brain tumor [source: Smith].

Allen isn't the first case of her kind, though her case is unusual. And her story adds to a growing body of evidence indicating that the brain, while composed of two hemispheres, is extraordinarily complex and can't easily be divided into two halves with separate responsibilities. Stories like Allen's show that the relationship between the hemispheres appears more fluid than the traditional binary model of the brain. And when it comes to questions of creativity and art, brain damage or other trauma can produce dramatic results, sometimes releasing a wellspring of artistry that the patient didn't know was there.

In this article, we'll take a look at how brain damage and brain trauma affects art. Read on to find out why someone with an IQ below 60 can produce masterful art and how a stroke can alter an artist's perceptions.

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