Friday, September 24, 2004

What Can Artists Who Experience Brain Disease Teach Us About the Brain and Behavior?

A small but fascinating area of study in neuropsychology is the examination of the abilities of artists who have sustained some form or another of brain disease. Painters, musicians, writers have all been studied, usually in detailed individual case studies. Changes as a result of progressive disorders (e.g., Alzheimer disease) or as a result of an acute event (e.g., stroke) have been examined, as well as the artistic productions of nonprofessionals (e.g., autistic children).

A new review article is available that discusses this work in detail. The article and its author are discussed in this press release from the University of Pennsylvania:

September 21, 2004

Artistic Expression Need Not End,
and Can Even Improve After Brain Damage

Penn Researcher Finds Neuropsychological Processes Offer Insights into Artistic Production

(Philadelphia, PA) – What happens to visual artists that experience brain damage? And what can it tell us about how humans represent the world? According to Anjan Chatterjee, MD, an Associate Professor in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, brain damage does not necessarily end the ability to produce compelling works of art; additionally, artists with brain damage can provide useful information on the nature of artistic expression. In a review article published in Neuropsychologia (Volume 42, Issue 11), Chatterjee draws on nearly 50 research articles and books, and finds that, “Artists with neuropsychological deficits do not necessarily produce art of lesser quality. Rather, their art may change in content or in style, sometimes in surprising and aesthetically pleasing ways.” Not only does this collection illustrate various forms and changes in perception, but it also suggests that continuing research in the field could bring about new therapies that could help patients with brain damage.

In the article, Chatterjee surveys nearly a half-century of findings of medical researchers on neurological syndromes and brain disorders and their consequences for the production of art. The purpose of the survey is to bring these findings, which appear in disparate books and journal articles, together and finally synthesize them into a single site. Although the data are descriptive in nature, the reports are few, and artistic talents and styles can vary greatly, Chatterjee believes this field is a rich seam to mine. “This opens up the possibility of obtaining greater insights into how the brain produces rich, intricate cultural products that move, enlighten, and transform each of us,” explains Chatterjee.


By bringing all of these scattered accounts into one body of literature, Chatterjee raises intriguing themes relevant to the nature of artistic expression and proposes that art is worth considering as a neuropsychological probe. Continuing research that focuses on these themes could bring exciting developments in various therapies for brain damage – including, of course, art therapy – and unlock perceptual mysteries of the mind. “Artists are especially adept at making their internal representations manifest,” explains Chatterjee. “Many more descriptions of the neuropsychology of artists could help determine and confirm the underlying principles of the consequences of brain damage on artistic expression.”
[ ... Read the full press release ... ]

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