April 8, 2008

Artistic...

... dementia.
From 1997 until her death 10 years later, Dr. Adams underwent periodic brain scans that gave her physicians remarkable insights to the changes in her brain.

“In 2000, she suddenly had a little trouble finding words,” her husband said. “Although she was gifted in mathematics, she could no longer add single digit numbers. She was aware of what was happening to her. She would stamp her foot in frustration.”...

When artists suffer damage to the right posterior brain, they lose the ability to be creative, Dr. Miller said. Dr. Adams’s story is the opposite. Her case and others suggest that artists in general exhibit more right posterior brain dominance. In a healthy brain, these areas help integrate multisensory perception. Colors, sounds, touch and space are intertwined in novel ways. But these posterior regions are usually inhibited by the dominant frontal cortex, he said. When they are released, creativity emerges.
What does this say about the difference between artists and mathematicians with healthy brains?

ADDED: Neo-neocon talks about Dr. Adams and her demented art.

26 comments:

Bob said...

Yah, I posted this on my own blog earlier this morning, it's a great read. While this form of dementia turned a scientist into an artist, the reverse doesn't work; it can't turn an artist into a scientist.

Ann Althouse said...

So an artist begins demented?

Bob said...

If they are into abstract expressionism, I'd say yes. :)

reader_iam said...

It's such a complex topic. One of the things that's frustrating about the NYT article is its generic use of "artists," when--in terms of how the brain functions--it's probably too simplistic to imply, or infer, that an artist-brain is an artist-brain, whatever the art form. There is evidence indicating that the brains of musicians, for example, tend to be unusual by virtue of the increased size of the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres, in a way that visual artists may not.

I've been reading up a lot lately on the brain for reasons unrelated to this post or Althouse's other related post, and if ever there was a topic which perfectly illustrates the idea that "the more you learn, the more you realize you know nothing," the brain is it.

rhhardin said...

It tails into the brain-in-a-vat fantasy (``That's you over there'').

Interesting but explains nothing.

Coleridge (via Schelling) on explanations : ``Matter has no inwards.''

Cavell I think came up with the line ``Replacing the village idiot with the village explainer.''

That's a caution about experts, not about curiosity. You're not talking about what you think you're talking about; a rhetorical shift has been made.

Roger J. said...

I continue to be amazed at the complexity of the human brain and how really little is known about its functioning. Are any commenters aware of how research into "idiots savant" supports this work?

Idiots savant is a terrible term but don't know what is the preferred, and am too lazy to look it up.

Richard Dolan said...

The write-up of this woman's problems has some strange aspects to it. The author begins by noting that "[w]hen artists suffer damage to the right posterior brain, they lose the ability to be creative..." I don't know whether the assertion about the right posterior brain is accurate, but it sounds odd. Creativity isn't just a matter of processing information, although that is a part of it. In this article, complex phenomena seem to be getting simplified and in the process a bit distorted. To the extent the claim about the right posterior brain is true, I suspect its truth is essentially similar to the assertion that damage to the eye can result in the lost of the ability to see. In that sense, the claim about the right posterior brain is not especially remarkable.

Where things really go off track in this article, in a strange reductionist way, is in this sequence of propositions: "Her case and others suggest that artists in general exhibit more right posterior brain dominance. In a healthy brain, these areas help integrate multisensory perception. Colors, sounds, touch and space are intertwined in novel ways. But these posterior regions are usually inhibited by the dominant frontal cortex, he said. When they are released, creativity emerges." The analysis begins in a sensible way but, step by step, the author sinks deeper into a mechanistic view of how people think, act, create that ends up as a confused mess.

To think of "creativity" (or any aspect of human potential marked by purpose, intent, meaning) in this way is to imagine some kind of ghost lurking behind the neural machinery that is somehow running that machine, directing it and watching what it produces all at the same time. Scientists like to debunk that Cartesian view (Damasio wrote a book with that as the ostensible theme) but their preference for a mechanistic explanation keeps leading them back into the same trap (Damasio certainly kept falling into it). The basic reason is that words like "creativity" describe what people do, not what neurons do. To capture the essence of thinking/feeling/creating, you need to put a person back into the mechanistic model, and that "person" inevitably shows up (even if rarely acknowledged) as the proverbial ghost in the machine.

The point is not that brain function doesn't have an enormous impact on what a person can do. Obviously it does, and neuroscientists are just the people to explain all that. But a model that attributes a property belonging only to the whole person to some organ or subpart is bound to lead to trouble. The mechanistic explanation of the functioning of a part ends up being confused with a description of the purposeful activity of the integrated whole. The discussion of creativity in this article strikes me as a case in point. To put it another way, it seems that a person needs lots of advanced degrees to come to the conclusion that, when someone is talking about an artist's "creativity," he is really having a discussion about neural functioning. Who knew?

After reading the article, I started wondering how Oliver Sacks or Antonio Damasio might have written about Dr. Adams. Of the two, I suspect that Sacks would have had the more interesting take on this subject. In general, Sacks seems to view the mind as a aspect of the whole person, an integrated process in which neural functioning is not confused with "thinking," "feeling" or other subjective properties or activities. Like the scientists described in the article, Damasio wavers between a rejection of the Cartesian view and an odd brain-as-thinking/feeling-machine perspective. I think Sacks would definitely have the better of it.

Richard Fagin said...

The article says something that I have believed for a long time: highly creative people to some extent lack the internally-generated constraints on behavior that govern the mental workings of less-creative or non-creative people. It is not really correct to divide mathematicians (and other top flight scientists) from artists, however. Genuinely brilliant scientists are necessarily creative. More common engineers and applied scientists tend to be more rule bound.

AlphaLiberal said...

I don't know the answer to Ann's question, interesting as it is.

Last night I came across this web site which has accounts and pictures from patients who died in a NY psychiatric hospital (prison, really...).

It's powerful stuff. We've come a long way in dealing with mental illness, but our journey is not yet over.

terrance said...

I don't know if the article allows one to draw any conclusions on the differences of the brains of artists and mathematicians. Dr. Adam's inability to add single digit numbers does not necessarily mean that she was no longer able to engage in mathematics. I knew a fourteen-year old girl going to graduate school studying bio-mathematics. She had serious problems learning and applying her basic multiplication tables (she had some weak executive functions, often associated with deficits in pre-frontal areas of the brain). Some elements of simple mathematics may depend on an intact frontal and pre-frontal lobe, and some artistic endeavors may be less reliant on executive functions (e.g. working memory). I'm with Richard Dolan, I'd love to hear Sach's, Damasio, or some other top neurologist/writer (i.e. creative scientist) expound on this case!

nansealinks said...

How could any of you expound with a combination of 26 letters on a solid background that are permutated only to perhaps 10% (?) of their full extent?

preposterous

Beth said...

if ever there was a topic which perfectly illustrates the idea that "the more you learn, the more you realize you know nothing," the brain is it.

Reader -- there's a poetic irony to that idea, isn't there?

ricpic said...

Us lefties have big right brains, posterior and anterior. Southpaws rule!

ricpic said...

.You're not talking about what you think you're talking about...

Sez you. I know exactly what I'm talking about. The fact that the world's out of kilter with what I'm talking about is the world's problem. Bwahahahahahaha...*


*I've always wanted to bwahaha. And now I've done it. Things just keep gettin' better and better.

Pogo said...

Hope is the thing with feathers.

Dementia is feather plucking.

reader_iam said...

Beth:

; )

blake said...

Pogo,

I'm not the pheasant plucker, I'm the pheasant plucker's son, and I'll keep on plucking pheasants till the pheasant plucker's come.

blake said...

Roger,

I'm not in the mainstream here, I don't think, but I don't think the term "idiot savant" is used any more.

The problem is, a person with a brain injury may have trouble expressing himself. But this is entirely how we test intelligence. Therefore it's shocking to see someone graded as a moron who is capable of brilliance.

I think the standard response is that there's a mechanistic explanation for the brilliance and the person is, in fact, still an idiot.

The other possibility--the one that I've personally observed in many brain-injured children--is that the person is highly intelligent, and simply constrained from expressing that.

If you took away Stephen Hawking's talking machine, for example, he'd be treated like an idiot. Or often stroke patients are so treated.

Joe said...

It doesn't really say anything about a healthy brain because they weren't studying one.

rhhardin said...

Airports have a brain scanner that can tell what you're thinking.

The only thing is that it doesn't work on women.

-- I always considered that to be a science-undermining joke, and if anything vaguely pro-female, when you let it settle.

rhhardin said...

A longish segment of John and Ken (then on KABC) with and about a brain-damaged caller here real audio, Sept 17 1999.

Roger J. said...

Blake: thank you for your thoughtful reply--I didnt think the term was appropriate, but in this day and age, who knows.

Eli Blake said...

I'm not so sure I buy into the 'artist vs. mathematician' model.

I have a degree in math, but I also was active in the arts and was a musician while I was in school. You'd be surprised at how many great mathematicians are gifted musicians (and music is certainly a form of art.)

According to the 'either-or' model that you are proposing here, someone like Leonardo da Vinci (a brilliant mathematician and artist) could not exist. What we have instead lost in modern day thinking is the concept of the 'renaissance man,' or in other words a person who was talented and knowledgeable about all manner of arts and sciences. Thomas Jefferson perhaps idealized this model among our founding fathers, but I fear that it is no longer the ideal for which we as a society believe that we should be striving.

reader_iam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rubhaul said...

Quote: But these posterior regions are usually inhibited by the dominant frontal cortex, he said. When they are released, creativity emerges.

Me: I know when my "posterior regions" cease being inhibited and start feeling "released," something other than "creativity" "emerges."

blake said...

Ha!

Eli, I have a degree in music, but have usually made a living as a computer programmer.