What is Creativity? Art as a Symptom of Brain Disease

We don’t normally associate creativity with brain disease, but a recent paper published in Brain suggests that maybe we should. When we think of someone affected by a serious brain disorder, we imagine deterioration and loss of function, but a surprising new study shows that some people may actually develop artistic talent as a result of their brain disorder, and that in turn, their art can tell us about the nature of their brain disorder.

This recent review by Schott brings together cases of individuals with neurological conditions, who with no previous artistic motivations suddenly become compelled to make art, and the art is good!

The authors describe a case of an epileptic man with no artistic ability who began to suffer recurring epileptic attacks in which he acted aggressively, could not speak or focus his eyes, and acted out of character. During these attacks, the patient began to draw spontaneously and compulsively, and with remarkable skill. In another case, a 68 year-old man had begun to paint at age 56 with the onset of dementia, despite never being interested in art before. In the ten years that passed after the onset of his dementia, his paintings became more and more detailed, colorful, precise and realistic, and he even began to win awards for his art.

Both these cases highlight the importance of context in understanding how art can tell us about brain disorders. The onset of uncharacteristic artistic behavior or the compulsive desire to create art where there has been no desire before might indicate an emerging neurological abnormality. Similarly, in people who already have creative ability, dramatic changes in style (e.g. from abstract to realistic) can indicate the onset or progression of brain dysfunction.

But how can these unusual events tell doctors about the patient’s underlying condition? In these and most other cases of emerging artistry, involvement of the left anterior temporal lobe appears to be crucial. The temporal lobe and frontal brain regions work together and are involved in creativity. Damage or degeneration of temporal regions can release the temporal lobe’s inhibitory influence on the frontal cortex, resulting in enhanced creativity. For example, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the elderly man with dementia revealed severe damage to the temporal lobe, while his frontal brain regions remained intact.

Similarly, an imbalance between left and right hemisphere activity appears to affect creativity. For example, in the case of the epileptic patient, based on his unusual behavior, neurologists deduced that the seizures were originating in the left frontal hemisphere. Depression of the dominant, logical left-brain regions during his seizure had caused the “release” of the more creative right brain, resulting in his unusual artistic ability.

These interesting case studies offer a new perspective on the way we study brain disorders, and challenge our understanding of creativity. The neural networks involved in creativity are delicately balanced. Disruption of this network can lead to the surprising and counter-intuitive emergence of new artistic talent; talent that is regarded by many to be a skill that is learned over years of practice. What makes some people artistically talented and others not? Practice or innate ability? The relevance of the age-old debate, ‘nature versus nurture?’ is brought to the fore by these cases, and points to the emergence of an exciting new, interdisciplinary field of neuroscience research.


Schott GD (2012). Pictures as a neurological tool: lessons from enhanced and emergent artistry in brain disease. Brain : a journal of neurology, 135 (Pt 6), 1947-63 PMID: 22300875

Image via IgorGolovniov / Shutterstock.

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  • Hi, interesting article. I am an art therapist with an interest in neurology and would appreciate if you could point any neurologists to my blog. On this article, i have to say that all the emphasis appears to be on illness and the pathology of creativity while we art therapists prefer to look at creativity in the brain as a sign of wellness and cultural health. Far too much time has been spent by art historians and private art promoters in particular, presenting the notion that creative people are whacky like warhol or nuts like Dali or Van Gogh. Ultimately, this hurts the art therapists premise that art heals and that creativity is a sign that things are actually going well. Ultimately it is hurtful to the cultural understanding of art that your article should spend so much time focussed on the relationship between creativity and neuropathology.

    • slip

      “Ultimately it is hurtful to the cultural understanding of art that your article should spend so much time focussed on the relationship between creativity and neuropathology.”

      I have to disagree with that. What this article is saying is that spontaneous and significant cognitive changes are indicative of neuropathology, and that such changes can manifest in “out of the blue” artistic talent. The manifestation of creativity in this manner is as “healthy” as an avid artist abruptly losing their interest/talent.

      This article should be seen as beneficial to the study of creativity and the brain because it is suggesting new avenues for learning more. Also, historically speaking, the relationship between neuroanatomy and brain function has been studied in patients with neurological degeneration because you can’t do studies where you selectively knock out areas of the brain. Thus, neuropathology is just inherent in the study of how the brain works.

      Ultimately, like art, such a negative view of the relationship between neuropathology and creativity is subjective. Instead, I would argue that (as in art) you consider whether it’s interesting/not-interesting, rather than good or bad. Art is healing (I worked in a hospital doing art with patients before starting my MD training), but that is a completely separate issue–the author was only trying to demonstrate a few case studies rather than a meta-analysis of neurology and creativity.

      • Hi Slip, thanks for your thoughtful reply to my comment. I read my own comment and realize it seems a little defensive. I guess what i am saying is that throughout all of the subjective history of art we have been too quick to associate creativity with pathology on one extreme or genius in the other extreme. The problem is that we associate creativity with either pathology or extreme talent when in fact we never really talk about how much creativity there actually is in the ordinary individual. I understand the relevance of studying creativity in the context of pathology and the brain, in fact i am deeply motivated by that line of inquiry as you can tell from my blog. People who have strokes sometimes have the ”out of the blue” creativity experience. People with Alzheimers seem better able to acces memories and language through music, people with different pathologies demonstrate typical types of artistic expression in many cases and visual art seems to be making headway in the treatment of trauma so I do believe that art can tell us a lot about psychopathology and neurological functioning. I just resist the tendency to to over emphasize the relationship between creativity and pathology or creativity and extreme genius. Creativity belongs to normal everyday people who use it on a daily basis to survive.

        • slip

          What I’m saying is that you’re now overcompensating. I think that as an artist it is easy to overemphasize the importance of creativity, just as it is easy for an education system to over emphasize the importance of math (it’s easy to test and compare).

          Reporting bias probably explains the “over emphasis” that you refer to. Abrupt changes are easier to study. It’s more interesting than general trends. The key is to be objective and not focus on generalizations that may be unfounded. It isn’t hard to find research that doesn’t relate to disease:


          • Trina

            Thomas, I think your main issue lies with the romanticization of pathology. Dr. Peter Kramer makes a case similar to yours about the ennobling of depression and other psychological ills especially in artistic spheres in his book “Against Depression.” Yes, as you mentioned, it is important to note that creativity can be found and fostered in normal individuals.The study doesn’t undermine this. What Slip is ultimately getting at is that this study contributes interesting factoids to our body of knowledge about the brain. With one hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synapses, not to mention plasticity, it is safe to say that we have a poor grasp of the complex circuitry of the brain as a whole. Schott’s study aims not to perpetuate this link between disease and art but rather to illuminate fascinating neuronal interactions and compensatory wiring, particularly in the instance of trauma or other damage.

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  • It is quite interesting that something healthy like creativity can also be a symtom of damage.

    Our educational system here in the US often puts art far back in priority, expecting teachers to magically teach the essencial skills needed to be creative.

    Perhaps we will find someday that by ignoring art skills in our children, their brains may not be capable of working out problems using both sides of the brain. Could this lead to disorders?

    I am a reading specialist, and work with children who are struggling to read. I’m also and artist, and feel there is a need to integrate creativity and literacy.

  • Dr, Y

    A new concept, called CEREBRART, integrates the cultures of the arts and sciences and suggests a new way of understanding neuroscience.


  • Thomas Shortliffe

    Thanks Trina, thanks for the reply. You are right, i do take issue with the romanticization of pathology rather than with the study itself. Perhaps i should have made that clear at the outset. As for scientific studies, i and most of the population are not qualified to have an opinion on them because we simply do not have an informed enough knowledge base within which to draw any conclusions about the scientific facts. We have to take the conclusions of such studies as fact because they are presented to us by the only people who are qualified to find the facts. We must either accept the conclusions on faith, or develop enough scientific literacy to judge for ourselves. The problem is this: neuroscience and pseudo neuroscience shape our reality and our understanding of ourselves in ways which no other discipline can do. The one who controls the narrative about what our neurons are doing controls pretty much everything else we do. That’s how important neuroscience is to our lived realities. For example, i heard someone claiming the other day, I believe it was Naomi Wolf, that Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter of feminism! You see where i am going? I just don’t want the case for an association between creativity and pathology in the brain to be overstated or overemphasized. Sure it is interesting but contrary to what has been stated by slip, i believe that general trends are more interesting to study than abrupt changes. Anyway, we all agree that reporting bias is the culprit of my discontent, so i just want to make the case that reporting bias in the field of neuroscience is a particularly salient issue. Are there any neuroscientists reading this?

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  • Jenna K

    Hi, thank you for this wonderful post! I’m a student in high school at the moment, and we’re learning about atoms and art in chemistry. When I read this post, I was amazed. It never occurred to me that something we do all the time can be a symptom and a tool to study brain disorders. I always wondered if art played a role with brain functions for some time, and I now know that it can play a HUGE role in brain study. I do wonder though, if creativity can be enhanced because of a brain disorder, would that mean that nurture would win against nature? In other words, would having a disorder win against learning art techniques?

  • rachita

    i love it
    nice and infomative

  • kristintaheri

    thank you for this article. it was reaffirming. i have chronic epilepsy. i woke up 4 or 5 years ago and became obsessed with painting almost overnight. i had never painted before. i had been diagnosed for many years (during this time) with my seizures as “mental illness”. in the last year, i found a doctor that correctly diagnosed me, had surgery done in june and i have been seizure free.

    this was a validating article and fascinating. thank you.

  • Dinesh Kumar Bajpai

    Pl submit the healthy exercise to improve the dementia and Alzheimer
    and educate us ie how to improve children brain from 5yrs to 15 yrs

    From D K Bajpai

India Bohanna, PhD

India Bohanna, PhD, earned her Bachelor of Science from Monash University and Doctor of Philosophy from University of Melbourne. She is currently a mental health research fellow.

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