I’m planning to write a blog post about comedy in the near future. For now, you can enjoy this interesting TED talk by Peter McGraw, one of the researchers that developed the Benign Violation Theory. You can read more about it here.
Readers of this blog probably know I’m very interested in creativity. Recently, I came across a very interesting review paper on artistry in brain disease by Schott. Even though, many studies focus on the loss of various abilities as result of brain injury or disease, this review is focused on cases where brain disease resulted in enhanced artistic creativity in people with an interest in art or emergence of artistic creativity in art naive patients. Pictures created spontaneously by patient with brain disease sometimes present an excellent opportunity for studying that disease and revealing underlying mechanisms of cerebral dysfunction. It can also provide some useful information about creative processes in the healthy brain.
Dementia and stroke are very common. However, cases of patients who exhibit enhanced artistic output in these and other neurological disorders are rare or very rare. Miller et al. (2000) showed that enhanced artistry is probably more common but it is often under-reported, since new or preserved visual or musical ability was found in 17% of 69 patients with frontotemporal dementia.
In fact, frontotemporal dementia seems to be the brain disease more closely associated with increased creativity. Miller et al. (1996) were the first to report a patient with frontotemporal dementia that had developed new artistic creativity in the face of advancing dementia. A number of papers (Tanabe et al., 1996; Snowden et al., 1996), as well as Miller at al.’s seminal letter in the Lancet published in the same year brought more attention to the subject of preserved or increased artistic creativity in the presence of brain disease. Miller et al. (1996) described a 68-year-old male with a 12-year history of frontotemporal dementia,who, at the age of 56 years, started to paint having had no previous interest in art.
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have also been reported to exhibit enhance artistic creativity. Professional painter, Danae Chambers, whose dementia started at around the age of 49 years (Fornazzari, 2005) is a striking example. Even though she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her MRI scan revealed mild to moderate brain atrophy, there was no effect on her talent and creativity. However, it should be noted that typically during the progression of the disease stylistic changes leading to frank deterioration and eventual cessation of painting have been reported, especially in professional artists (see Crutch and Rossor, 2006).
In the case of autism there have been several cases of even very young autistics who could produce impressive works of art. A famous example is Stephen Wiltshire, who was able to draw astonishingly faithful architectural representations at the age of 7 years (Sacks, 1995).
According to Schott unexpected artistic creativity experienced by many patients has many features that suggest compulsive behaviour. Moreover, emergence of artistry after brain disease reflects innate rather than learned skills.
The brain correlates of emergent artistic creativity are rather obscure. It appears that dysfunction of the anterior temporal lobes is important if not crucial for the production of unexpectedly enhanced artistry, but the findings are often inconsistent. In some cases frontal lobe involvement is present too (Seeley et al., 2008). Thus creative drive is thought to increase not only with abnormalities of temporal lobe function and ‘release’ of frontal lobe-mediated creativity, but also by involvement of the dopaminergic mesolimbic system (Flaherty, 2005)
One might wonder; is this emergence of artistic talent observed in patients with various brain diseases really creativity?
De Souza et al. (2010) then concluded: ‘The emergence of artistic talent in patients with fvFTLD is explained by the release of involuntary behaviors, rather than by the development of creative thinking’, and also recommended avoiding consideration of ‘pseudo-creative production, or the emergence of “artistic talent”, as a mastered mental production’.
The author, however, disagrees and concludes:
…the notion of pseudo-creation and identification of ‘artistic talent’ create more difficulties than enlightenment; rather, they emphatically confirm the importance of patients’ pictures. The evidence for creativity surely lies in the creation itself rather than in perfusion patterns or psychological tests.
Schott, G. (2012). Pictures as a neurological tool: lessons from enhanced and emergent artistry in brain disease Brain, 135 (6), 1947-1963 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr314
Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, convened a discussion of the effects of depression on creativity. Joining Jamison were two distinguished colleagues from the fields of neurology and neuropsychiatry, Dr. Terence Ketter and Dr. Peter Whybrow. The Music and the Brain series is co-sponsored by the Library’s Music Division and Science, Technology and Business Division, in cooperation with the Dana Foundation.
The “Depression and Creativity” symposium marks the bicentennial of the birth of German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), who died after a severe depression following the death of his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, also a gifted composer.
One of the nation’s most influential writers on creativity and the mind, Kay Redfield Jamison is a noted authority on bipolar disorder. She is the co-author of the standard medical text on manic-depressive illness and author of “Touched with Fire,” “An Unquiet Mind,” “Night Falls Fast” and “Exuberance: The Vital Emotion.”
Dr. Terence Ketter is known for extensive clinical work with exceptionally creative individuals and a strong interest in the relationship of creativity and madness. He is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and chief of the Bipolar Disorders Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Dr. Peter Whybrow, an authority on depression and manic-depressive disease, is director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is also the Judson Braun Distinguished Professor and executive chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. (description take from here).
And here’s the video:
Why do some people like popular music while others prefer less popular genres? A new study published on the journal Psychology of Music proposes a possible explanation for this, handedness. After examining the musical preferences and the handedness scores of 92 undergraduate students, S.D. Christman identified that the strength of handedness is an important factor in individual differences in musical preferences.
More specifically, strong right-handers compared to mixed-handers reported significantly decreased liking of unpopular music genres and marginally increased liking of popular genres. These differences do not appear to reflect differences in musical training or experience. According to the author of the study handedness is associated with differences in cognitive flexibility. Previous studies suggest that strong right-handedness is associated with decreased interaction between the left and right cerebral hemispheres, which in turn is associated with decreased cognitive flexibility across various domains. The author concludes:
A number of studies report differences between conservatives and liberals in musical preferences (e.g., Glasgow & Cartier, 1985; North & Hargreaves, 2007). For example, Glashow and Cartier (1985) reported that conservatives prefer music that is safe and familiar, presumably reflecting preference for popular, not unpopular, genres. Given evidence that strong right-handedness is associated with increased conservative attitudes (Christman, 2008), this suggests a possible three-way connection between strong right-handedness, conservative views, and a lack of open-earedness. Accordingly, future research on individual differences in musical preferences would be well advised to include strength of handedness as a variable.
Finally, in case you’re curious, here are some of the genres included in each category: (a) popular: modern rock, classic rock, heavy metal, alternative rock, modern pop, 80s pop, R&B, Rap, Hip-hop, country, (b) unpopular: soul, funk, jazz, blues, folk, avant-garde, world, electronica, reggae, ambient, house. The categorisation of popular and unpopular genres was based on record sales (conventional music was defined as popular genres with high numbers of sales, while unconventional music was defined as less popular genres with lower numbers of sales). Even though the proposed idea is interesting, handedness is probably only one of the factors that might explain individual differences in musical preference. For a different approach see a recently published study by Chamorro-Premuzic et al. (2011) who found that individual differences in music consumption are predicted by uses of music and age rather than emotional intelligence, neuroticism, extraversion or openness.
Christman, S. D. (2011). Handedness and ‘open-earedness’: Strong right-handers are less likely to prefer less popular musical genres Psychology of Music : 10.1177/0305735611415751
Chamorro-Premuzic, T., Swami, V., & Cermakova, B. (2011). Individual differences in music consumption are predicted by uses of music and age rather than emotional intelligence, neuroticism, extraversion or openness Psychology of Music : 10.1177/0305735610381591
Does monocular viewing affect judgement of art? According to a 2008 paper by Finney and Heilman it does. The two researchers from the University of Florida inspired by previous studies investigating the effect of monocular viewing on performance on visual-spatial and verbal memory tasks, attempted to see what the results would be in the case of Art.
In particular, they recruited 8 right-eye dominant subjects (6 men and 2 women) with college education and asked them to view monocularly on a colour computer screen 10 painting with the right eye and another 10 with the left. None of the subjects was familiar with the presented paintings. Overall, each subject viewed 5 abstract expressionist and 5 impressionist paintings with each eye. Then they rated on a 1 to 10 scale four qualities of the paintings: representation (=how well the subject of the painting was rendered), aesthetics (how beautiful the painting appeared), novelty (=newness and originality of the painting), and closure (=completeness of the composition). Each quality was defined for each subject.
Monocular viewing had significant effects only in paintings in the abstract expressionist style. Impressionist paintings yielded no differences. The authors attributed this to the more concrete nature of impressionist works. Abstract expressionist paintings were rated more novel when viewed with the left eye. Moreover, the researchers found a trend for rating paintings as having more closure when they were viewed with the right eye than with the left.
The left eye primarily projects to the right superior colliculus and activation of this colliculus activates the right hemisphere’s attentional systems. The authors suggest that the results of the study provide evidence for the role of the right hemisphere in creativity and novelty processing. This seems consistent with previous research on patients with brain lesions and neuroimaging studies that have associated global processing and creativity with the right hemisphere*.
The small number of participants, however, means that the effects observed in this study must be seen with caution. Hopefully, someone will try to replicate these results involving a bigger sample in the near future.
*but also see Lindell (2010)
Finney, G., & Heilman, K. (2008). Art in the Eye of the Beholder: The Perception of Art During Monocular Viewing Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, 21 (1), 5-7 DOI: 10.1097/WNN.0b013e3181684fe0
Charles Limb is a surgeon and musician who is investigating the neural correlates of musical creativity. You might remember his very cool fMRI study of jazz improvisation. You can read it here. He talks about this and other projects he’s working on in his recent TED talk. We need more studies like these!
Creativity plays a big part in most areas of everyday life. Sternberg and Lubart (1996) define creativity as the ability to produce work that is original, useful and, generative. Psychologists usually measure creativity with the Alternative Uses (AU) task. In this particular test individuals are asked to list as many possible uses for a common item. It is thought to test divergent thinking, a thought process associated with creativity and problem solving. The AU task has been shown to activate especially frontal areas of the brain. More specifically, Carlsson and colleagues (2000) found that the AU compared to a verbal fluency task was associated with stronger level of activity of the anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC). The same area was found to be activated during divergent thinking problems (Goel & Vartanian, 2005) and in creative story generation (Howard-Jones et al., 2005). Other brain areas that have been found to play a role in creativity include posterior brain areas like the anterior supramarginal gyrus
Fink and colleagues scanned 31 healthy participants while they were performing one non-creative control task and three creative tasks (the AU and two variations of it). In one of those variations, the incubation condition (AUinc) the researchers administered the AU task and instructed participants to reflect on their own ideas or responses they gave during the performance of the respective test item in the simple AU condition. The final task was the cognitive stimulation condition (AUstim). In this condition the participants were asked to do the AU task but were also exposed to other people’s ideas.
The AU conditions differed significantly with respect to the originality of generated ideas. In particular the highest originality was observed when the participants when exposed to other people’s idea (AUstim), followed by the incubation task (AUinc). These findings suggest that cognitive stimulation via the exposure to other people’s ideas has beneficial effects on creative cognition. At the neurophysiological level, the main differences in activations between the experimental tasks were found in posterior, especially temporo-parietal brain regions. More specifically the generation of original ideas was associated with more activation in the (anterior) supramarginal gyrus and stronger widespread deactivation in the inferior parietal cortex (around the angular gyri), especially in the right hemisphere.
Reflecting on own ideas (AUinc) compared to the simple AU condition was accompanied by higher activation in the bilateral cingulate cortex (or less deactivation, respectively), and lower activation in regions of the bilateral occipital cortex, the latter probably reflecting the stronger attentional focus to the visual input in the AU compared to the AUinc condition. The stimulation with external ideas (AUstim), yielding the strongest increase in originality compared to AU, was also associated with stronger activation (less deactivation) in the cingulate gyrus, now extending to the precuneus bilaterally. The latter contrast also revealed additional activation clusters in the right temporo-parietal cortex (including portions of the middle temporal, angular, and supramarginal gyri) and in medial orbitofrontal regions, with both clusters displaying less deactivation in the AUstim compared to the AU condition.
Interestingly, the contrasts between the two different intervention conditions (AUinc vs. AUstim) did not reveal any significant activation clusters, even though those two conditions produced different behavioural results.
According to the authors:
we may conclude that the interventions effects – though resulting in different behavioral results – appear to be rather unspecific with respect to brain function. However, this finding could also reflect the possibility that both creativity interventions provoke fairly similar psychological and neural processes during the idea generation period. Both interventions require participants to actively attend to and to process stimulus-related information which was in the one case self-generated (AUinc) and in the other case produced by other people (AUstim).
The findings of this study suggest that creative cognition can be improved effectively by cognitive stimulation and techniques (e.g. brainstorming). Furthermore, these effects are also apparent at the level of the brain. It would be very interesting to see similar studies in the future that attempt to employ more complex, ecologically valid creativity tasks.
Fink A, Grabner RH, Gebauer D, Reishofer G, Koschutnig K, & Ebner F (2010). Enhancing creativity by means of cognitive stimulation: evidence from an fMRI study. NeuroImage, 52 (4), 1687-95 PMID: 20561898
A new study by researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet supports the hypothesis that there is a link between mental illness and creativity. More specifically, they showed that highly creative people – with high scores in divergent thinking – had a lower density of D2 receptors in their thalamus than less creative people. Lower density of D2 receptors is a consistent finding in patients with schizophrenia. The authors suggest that lower density of D2 receptors may be “one factor that facilitates performance on divergent thinking tasks.”, as it could possibly:
“lower thalamic gating thresholds, resulting in decreased filtering and autoregulation of information flow and, increase excitation of cortical regions through decreased inhibition of prefrontal pyramidal neurons. The decreased prefrontal signal-to-noise ratio may place networks of cortical neurons in a more labile state, allowing them to more easily switch between representations and process multiple stimuli across a wider association range. This state, which we hereforth will refer to as the “creative bias”, could benefit performance on tasks that involve continuous generation and (re-)combination of mental representations and switching between mind-sets
However, decreased signal-to-noise ratio is also associated with some drawbacks (i.e. cognitive disorganization, poor performance on tasks of selective attention), some of which are linked to psychopathology. As de Manzano and colleagues conclude:
“..thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box.”
de Manzano, Örjan, Cervenka, Simon, Karabanov, Anke, Farde, Lars, & Ullén, Fredrik (2010). Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box: Thalamic Dopamine D2 Receptor Densities Are Negatively Related to Psychometric Creativity in Healthy Individuals PLoS ONE DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010670
A few hours ago I had the chance to attend a really interesting lecture at ICN by Dr Peter Garrard. When he was still at ICN he did an original study on a well known writer diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Here’s the abstract:
“Iris Murdoch (I.M.) was among the most celebrated British writers of the post-war era. Her final novel, however, received a less than enthusiastic critical response on its publication in 1995. Not long afterwards, I.M. began to show signs of insidious cognitive decline, and received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, which was confirmed histologically after her death in 1999. Anecdotal evidence, as well as the natural history of the condition, would suggest that the changes of Alzheimer’s disease were already established in I.M. while she was writing her final work. The end product was unlikely, however, to have been influenced by the compensatory use of dictionaries or thesauri, let alone by later editorial interference. These facts present a unique opportunity to examine the effects of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease on spontaneous written output from an individual with exceptional expertise in this area. Techniques of automated textual analysis were used to obtain detailed comparisons among three of her novels: her first published work, a work written during the prime of her creative life and the final novel. Whilst there were few disparities at the levels of overall structure and syntax, measures of lexical diversity and the lexical characteristics of these three texts varied markedly and in a consistent fashion. This unique set of findings is discussed in the context of the debate as to whether syntax and semantics decline separately or in parallel in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.”*
You can read the full paper here.
* Garrard, P. and Maloney, L.M. and Hodges, J.R. and Patterson, K. (2005) The effects of very early Alzheimer’s disease on the characteristics of writing by a renowned author. Brain, 128 (Part 2). pp.250 -260. ISSN 00068950
picture: A Lady Writing (1665-1666) by Vermeer