We’ve all heard stories about someone coming out of a brain injury with creative skills they had never had before. And we know that some of our most creative artists have suffered from mental illness.
So, what is the connection between the structures of the brain and the creative force? What can we learn by studying people who have become more creative after brain injury?
Tonight the Black Mountain Institute will hold a panel discussion with writers – creative people all – who have tried to answer that question.
The discussion is called, “Stroke of Genius: What Brain Injury Reveals About Creativity, Consciousness, and the Mind-Body Connection." It will start at 7 p.m. in the Salon Ballroom in the Stan Fulton Building at UNLV.
Josh Shenk the executive director of Black Mountain Institute is moderating the panel.
He became interested in mental illness because of experiences in his own family. He wrote a book about depression and its impact on President Abraham Lincoln.
"This is thee underlying theme for me is the relationship between disability, difficulty, trouble all these things that we would usually put into the category of problems to be fixed, especially in modern Western times," Shenk said. "The relationship between those things and all that we admire and appreciate in creativity and leadership and insight."
According to Shenk, it was President Lincoln's struggle with depression when he was a young man, and his ultimate decision to live to do something worthwhile, instead of taking his own life, that led him to become the great leader that he was.
It is not just mental illness that can have an impact on creativity, but changes to the brain function from outside or inside damage that can have an impact.
Dr. Bruce Miller is the director of the Aging and Memory Center at the University of California San Francisco.
He has studied that connection.
He said changes to the left side of the brain, which manages language, can sometimes produce extraordinary visual creativity in people who never displayed artistic talents before.
"In particular, people who have degenerative diseases that affect the left side of the brain, particularly in the front, often exhibit enhanced visual abilities in the setting of the illness," Miller said.
As an example, Miller told the story of a woman named Anne Adams who was a biologist but she developed a degenerative disease known as aphasia, which caused her to lose her ability to express herself with words.
However, that brain damage sparked "amazing artistic creativity," according to Dr. Miller.
Adams became obsessed with the composer Maurice Ravel and in particular his famous work "Boléro." She produced remarkable paintings based on the notes of the orchestral piece.
In a bizarre twist, that Dr. Miller believes was not coincidence, Ravel also suffered from the same type of aphasia. He wrote "Boléro" six years before he was diagnosed.
"So, these two people who never knew each other, brought up in very different times, were locked together in this magnificent piece of music," Miller said.
Miller believes that Adams, who died in 2007, and Ravel having the same brain dysfunction led them to the same artistic place and that artistic place is brought on by brain damage.
"Perhaps in some people the left side of the brain, this language side, suppresses this type of visual creativity and when there is loss of function on the left side it releases the increased activity on the right," he said.
Aphasia and its impact on the brain and language was first documented in the 1860s by a French scientist. Miller said it was the first time doctors and scientists started to realize that different parts of the brain had different functions.
Josh Shenk, executive director, Black Mountain Institute at UNLV; Dr. Bruce Miller, director of the Aging and Memory Center at the University of California/San Francisco
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