Many people who have suffered brain damage turn to creating art. Researchers are studying them to help unravel how the brain works.
Artist Katherine Sherwood was just 44 when a hemorrhage in her brain's left hemisphere paralyzed the right side of her body — forever changing her artwork.
Before the stroke in 1997, her mixed-media paintings featured strange and cryptic images: medieval seals, transvestites, bingo cards. Reviewers called her work cerebral and deliberate. Creativity, says the UC Berkeley professor, was an intellectual and often angst-filled struggle.
And she began to more deeply explore the beauty of blood vessels in the brain after seeing some of her own brain scans.
Critics called the new work intuitive and raw, more vibrant, abstract, expressive.
Her attitudes too had changed: "The paint I was now using started to crack — and before the stroke, I would've been horrified," she says. "But after the stroke, I thought it looked interesting and, I believed, was part of the metaphorical language of the painting. Also, I really saw the paintings confirming my ability to live."
For Sherwood, the brain damage and resulting shift in her art led to awards, museum shows and a whole new level of critical acclaim. For scientists, experiences like hers are helping shine light on the workings of the brain.
In growing numbers, people with Alzheimer's, migraines, autism, epilepsy and more are picking up paintbrushes or putting drawing pencils to paper. Some are artists like Sherwood who continue to produce prolific portfolios after brain damage and find their work dramatically changed. Others turn to art only after a disease has set in, and they may even be inspired by it. Both groups are helping researchers unravel the complicated and intertwined ways that biology produces creativity — including the contributions of inhibition, obsession and other personality traits. "There are virtually no situations where brain damage makes things better," says Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who is working on a book about art and the brain. But art is, he adds, one of the few complex aspects of human cognition that doesn't necessarily get worse.
"Think of a mobile where you have different weights that settle into some kind of equilibrium," he says. "If you take away certain weights, the whole system readjusts. In some instances, the art ends up being just as beautiful.
"In other cases, it's more beautiful."
Lester Potts had never picked up a paintbrush before his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 2001, at the age of 72. He had worked in a rural Alabama sawmill through the Great Depression. He served in the Korean War and grew into an even-keeled and dependable civic leader. But when his brain disorder struck, Potts lost the ability to take care of himself, and he sank into depression.
Painting with watercolors as part of a therapy program buoyed him, says his son, Daniel C. Potts. Even more surprising, his father had talent. When Lester brought home his first creation — a bright purple and yellow hummingbird with green wings and a red head — his wife asked him who gave him such a beautiful painting.
As Lester's disease progressed, his paintings evolved too. And even though he lost the ability to talk or write before his death in 2007, his artwork continued to feature themes from his youth, offering comfort to his family and a fascinating look into the brain of someone with a degenerative and still-mysterious disease.
"It is a known phenomenon that folks can find artistic abilities that had been previously unknown when they get Alzheimer's and other kinds of dementia," says Daniel Potts, who is a neurologist at the University of Alabama School of Medicine and president of Cognitive Dynamics, a foundation that aims to improve the quality of life for people with cognitive impairments. For his father, he says, "this creative energy and newfound talent shored up his sense of self-worth and his human dignity."
By studying works of art like Potts' that emerge from different types of dementia, scientists have begun to map the brain regions that interact to either inspire or inhibit the creation of art.
Patients with a category of brain degeneration called frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, have been particularly illuminating. Here, damage to the front and sides of the brain tend to interfere with sources of personality, behavior and language. As a result, personality changes can be drastic, trending toward the obsessive and meticulous.
People with FTD often develop artistic talents only after the disease strikes, Chatterjee says. Their art usually involves concrete and realistic themes, and they often produce the same images over and over, with small variations.
The late University of British Columbia scientist Anne Adams, for one, started to paint only after the onset of a type of FTD that attacked the language networks in her brain. As her speech disappeared, her artistic creativity flourished.