Brain Damage and Artistic Ability

The ABC science news (Australia) summarizes a recent paper on brain damage and artistic ability:

Dr Valeria Drago of the University of Florida at Gainesville and others studied the art of a woman who had been an artist before developing [frontotemporal lobar dementia].

As the woman’s condition worsened, they found, her artistic technique improved, but the emotional power of her work decreased.

“We can really follow how the paintings have been changed following the disease,” says Drago.

Drago and her team gathered 40 of the woman’s paintings, including several from the period before she developed symptoms. Some were when her symptoms were beginning, and some were painted later.

The researchers then gave 18 men and women training on how to evaluate six different artistic qualities, and asked them to rate the paintings.

Ratings for the paintings’ artistic skill rose as the woman’s disease progressed.

But ratings on the paintings’ ‘evocative impact’ and ‘closure’ fell.

Evocative impact is the ability of a work of art to elicit an emotional reaction, while closure is the sense that a painting is finished and complete.

Drago and her team note that the condition leaves the parts of the brain at work in drawing, painting and other skills relatively intact.

The part of the brain the disease does affect may typically inhibit this region of the brain, so when it is damaged artistic talents have freer rein, they suggest.

The researchers also point out that patients with this form of brain damage may have damage to the limbic system, a network within the brain essential for mediating emotions.

This damage could in turn impair an artist’s ability to paint emotionally affecting paintings, or to portray emotion visually.

Drago says she and her team are continuing to study creativity and the brain, and are currently looking at how normal ageing may change creativity.

This research on the artistic effects of frontotemporal lobar dementia is in the latest issue of the journal Neurology.