Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Disinhibition does not equal creativity - (Neuroscience and a little too much imagination)

A rare neurological disease that unleashes creativity is how Sandra Blakeslee's article in today's Science Times pitches FTD, frontotemporal dementia.

"We used to think dementias his the brain diffusely," Dr. Miller said. "Nothing was anatomically specific. That is wrong. We now realize that when specific, domonant circuits are injured or disintegrate, they may release or disinhibit activity in other areas. In other words, if one part of the brain is compromised, another part can remodel and become stronger."

The article goes on to describe variants of the disease, some affecting speech, and other personality. None of them end prettily. It draws our attention to two cases in particular, the composer Maurice Ravel and a former scientist turned painter named Anne Adams. Both of them became attracted to structures of extreme repetitiveness. The well known Bolero's theme is highly structured and perseverative and the article describes similarly ordered paintings by Anne Adams. The thing that gets my goat about the article is that it speaks of the disease as "allowing torrents of creativity" or "developing artistic abilities," but that is a ridiculous interpretation if one goes by the abstract of the case study written by Dr. Bruce Miller and colleagues in the 2007 issue of the journal Brain. (I have not read the article yet). The abstract speaks of a single person - as this is a case study - who developed "an intense drive to produce visual art." Both Ravel and Adams appear to have possessed their artistic talents prior to the disease. It appears that Anne Adams' case released in her a desire to paint but one cannot conclude from this that she developed talent. If she had enjoyed baking, the disease might have resulted in a torrent of muffins. There is nothing new about lesions to the frontal lobes resulting in disinhibition - lack of the ability to control oneself. Classically people speak out inappropriately, for example they swear more. It is curious but beautiful that her disinhibition took on an aesthetic form. It is fine to muse on these rare diseases, that are no doubt much more remarkable and fascinating from a distance than they are when you are related to one of the rare cases. Her brain was becoming disordered and with it, perhaps, her world. I think it interesting to ponder whether she was attracted to images of structured repetitiveness in order to put her world back together again, but it makes me queasy when diseases are romanticized. Too big a leap was made in how this article characterizes FTD and it seems a bit flip to sell disinhibition as creativity for the sake of a headline.


Anonymous said...

I share your unease with romanticizing disease. I have the sense we do this a lot and especially with neurological disorders and creativity, which I find frustrating. From either side - that someone who is sick somehow ends up uniquely gifted or that to be uniquely gifted you have to be sick. Seems unfair (and perhaps dangerous) either way you look it

Anne Camille said...

At first I found Blakeslee's article interesting, but when I went to Adams' website, had to do a more critical evaluation of the article given that Adams didn't just 'find' art when her disease started to progress.

I am fascinated, however, by her work 'Unraveling Bolero'. Interesting comment about trying to piece things together with structured repetitiveness. The title suggests more analysis (unraveling) than synthesis, but perhaps that too, is romanticizing? Maybe she didn't even name the work.

Ted said...

Cam - My notion of the artist creating structure is absolutely a romanticization too - or a fictionalization of her motives. It is fascinating to ponder. One can only hope, that if this devastating kind of degenrative disease encourages someone to paint that it is at least rewarding and engaging while they can do it.