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!