Can brain damage lead to extraordinary art?

By: Jacob Silverman  | 
What does an artist's brain look like? See more pictures of the brain.
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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].


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.


Artists with Brain Damage

Some scientists believe that Andy Warhol had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.

In recent years, neurologists have observed several intriguing cases of artists with progressive brain damage or dealing with the aftereffects of strokes. In one case, researchers evaluated an artist's entire career of paintings, both before and after her medical condition began causing brain damage. The observers determined that the paintings created later in the disease's progression showed more artistic skill but also appeared unfinished and less emotionally impactful [source: Harding]. The scientists performing the study concluded that the damage to the woman's temporal lobe allowed her to operate more freely as an artist, likely contributing to the perceived increase in artistry, but also hampered her ability to connect with and finish her work.

In May 2005, Swiss neurologists published the results of a study on two visual artists whose post-stroke work was markedly different from their pre-stroke work. One of the artists, who suffered damage in an area of the brain connected with forming mental images, started painting in a more abstract style. (In contrast to this case, other studies have shown that left hemisphere damage can hinder a person's ability to paint in an abstract or representational manner [source: ABC Science Online].)


The other artist, whose brain damage occurred in a region affecting creativity, began to paint more realistically and with brighter colors. He also started using his left hand more often, whereas before he'd been ambidextrous. But perhaps the most fascinating development was that both artists saw no differences in their post-stroke work. To them, it looked the same as their earlier artwork.

What these cases generally have in common is a tendency for a damaged brain to produce markedly different and often more free-form art. To judge a painting's aesthetic value is fairly subjective, so it's difficult to state definitively that these artists produced "better" art after suffering brain damage. But their art certainly changed, and cases like these indicate that damage to the left temporal lobe often changes long-established artistic habits or unlocks a previously unknown creative impulse.

Similar effects have been observed in patients with progressive brain damage from frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Some FTD patients have shown startling new talents in art and music and an obsessive focus on exercising these skills. Brain scans of FTD-riddled brains show damage to the left temporal lobe and decreased blood flow. The results are similar to brain scans of autistic savants, sometimes resulting in the label of acquired savant being applied to these cases [source: Fox]. Acquired savants have also developed from suffering meningitis and serious head injuries. (We'll take a closer look at autistic savants and art on the next page.)

The theory behind FTD patients who show heightened artistic skills states that brain damage to the left hemisphere breaks down the barriers preventing some people from expressing themselves visually, while simultaneously harming memory and verbal skills [source: Treffert]. FTD essentially rewires the brain, producing noticeable physical effects. While some areas, such as those associated with language, suffer damage, portions of the right side of the brain, linked with visual learning, actually increase in thickness [source: Blakeslee].

Many acquired savants showcase fascinating new talents, but most don't compare to those born with savant syndrome or who appear to acquire it early in life (think "Rain Main"). On the next page, we'll look at the connections between savant syndrome and art.


Savant Syndrome and Art

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Savant syndrome often appears in childhood, frequently as a result of autism but sometimes after an illness, stroke or seizure. The condition is characterized by remarkable artistic, musical or mathematical abilities, and often accompanied by brain damage, low IQ, difficulty communicating and other disabilities. One common form of savant syndrome is the musical savant who has extraordinary musical ability combined with blindness and mental retardation [source: Treffert]. Only 10 percent of autistics have heightened abilities [source: Fox].

Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic savant nicknamed "the human camera," can paint uncannily detailed vistas from memory [source: Wansell]. He also has perfect pitch -- perhaps the only savant with extraordinary talents in two fields [source: H.W. Wilson]. Noted neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks called Wiltshire's progress in basic communication (he didn't say his first word until age 8 and couldn't cross the street on his own until he was in his teens), combined with his status as a world-renowned artist, a "miracle" [source: H.W. Wilson].


There are varying theories as to why savants perform so magnificently in art or math with massively damaged brains. One acknowledged component is the obsessive focus that all savants seem to share. It's a characteristic that stems from how the autistic brain develops, in which neurons in areas affecting emotion and social interaction don't fully develop or form proper connections. Consequently, many autistics have difficulty engaging with the world but find comfort in repeating certain tasks, such as drawing.

A related theory attests that savants engage in compulsive learning, obsessively studying a concept or skill. Calendar savants can assign a day of the week to a date hundreds of years in the past or future. Some of these savants have been known to study calendars obsessively, but most appear to have at least some innate ability. One example is Timothy Rickard, who is blind and has the intellect of a kindergartener but is also capable of matching a day of the week to a historical date with a high degree of accuracy [source: Fox].

Another attempt to unravel the mystery considers how autistic people see the world. Because the emotional and social centers of the autistic brain don't fully develop, autistics often see their surroundings in terms of components rather than abstractions.

Here's an example. If someone throws you a baseball, your brain automatically estimates various relevant factors: ball speed, direction, distance, time until arrival. It also considers environmental factors and how to move to catch the ball. But most of this is done subconsciously and very quickly. You probably don't even realize your brain is doing it and instead only see a ball and think about catching it. In a savant's thinking, the focus is on hard data, rather than the general conclusions drawn from them. So instead of thinking about catching a ball or enjoying a musical piece, he or she might think about precise aspects of a ball's flight or determine exactly (and very quickly) which notes are being played.

With the existence of acquired savant syndrome, some scientists speculate that all humans have the potential for savant abilities but that savants are somehow able to harness them, likely owing to how their brains have been "rewired" [source: Fox]. The future of this field of study may lie in being able to create acquired savants without the accompanying brain trauma. One researcher, Allan Snyder, director of the Center of the Mind, has used transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily upset the frontotemporal lobe, the same area where some dementia patients and autistic savants have brain damage. A portion of Snyder's test subjects showed a temporary increase in artistic ability.

If you'd like to read more articles on the brain, from whether it's hardwired for religion to the difference between men's and women's brains, try the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

Which savant artist has autism?
The savant artist with autism is Stephen Wiltshire.

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  • Blakeselee, Sandra. "A Disease That Allowd Torrents of Creativity." New York Times. April 8, 2008.
  • Blumenthal, Ralph. "Success at 14, Despite Autism; His Drawings Go for Up to $1,200 and Win High Praise." New York Times. Jan. 16, 2002.
  • Fox, Douglas S. "The Inner Savant." Discover Magazine. Feb. 1, 2002.
  • Harding, Anne. "Brain damage unleashes your inner Picasso." Reuters. ABC. Oct. 20, 2006.
  • Sacks, Oliver. "An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales." The Stephen Wiltshire Gallery.
  • Smith, Carol. "Brain tumor opens her mind to art." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 13, 2006.
  • Treffert, Darold A. "Musical Genius, Blindness and Mental Handicap: An Intriguing Triad." Wisconsin Medical Society. 2008.
  • Treffert, Darold A. "The 'Acquired Savant' -- 'Accidental' Genius." Wisconsin Medical Society.
  • Wansell, Geoffrey. "Revealed: How autistic genius Stephen Wiltshire drew his amazing picture of London's skyline." Daily Mail. April 8, 2008.
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  • "Michelangelo may have been autistic." Agence France-Presse. ABC. June 1, 2004.
  • "Were Socrates, Darwin, Andy Warhol and Einstein Autistic?" Medical News Today. Jan. 11, 2004.