Can brain damage lead to extraordinary art?

By: Jacob Silverman

Artists with Brain Damage

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