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Driven to Draw: Creativity Erupts from Brain Insult

Originally published by Teodora Stoica on her Curious Cortex blog.

After eating one banana at 10’oclock precisely, she begins furiously drawing on the nearest blank sheet of paper. Her hand moves as if possessed, compulsively and rapidly sketching the same inane subjects from the day before. The irrepressible urge to create results in a complete neglect of her personal hygiene. Later, she gathers her pictures in a neat pile and binge eats an entire box of cookies. This isn’t a starving artist preparing for an opening show. This is Mrs. YCFZ, an 83 yr old patient never notably interested in art, diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia.

Mrs. YCFZ isn’t the first documented case where an urge to create erupted out of brain damage (see here for more); yet the explanation for this sudden obsession for producing art baffles scientists. Creativity, from a neuroscientific perspective, is defined as the ability to produce a work that is both original and valuable. The brain part used in this endeavor is the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

The PFC has a big job. It is connected with sensory systems involved in perception and receives information about past events and connects them to long-term memory circuits. As part of the limbic system it modulates emotions and motivations programs and performs plans of actions. In other words, “seeing” that art piece in your mind, planning what materials to use and then executing is all due to this little piece of grey matter. It is understandable then, that impairment of the PFC would result in a creative drought. Yet, clinical evidence says it is not so.

Mrs. YCFZ intrigued her doctors, which decided to systematically analyze her drawing production. They used a test called the consensual assessment technique (CAT) to measure global creativity of each drawing. Independent professional visual artists rated a series of 12 compositions spanning 3 years. They answered questions such as “How beautiful is this painting” [Aesthetics] “How strongly does the painting induce feelings or thoughts?” [Evocative impact] “How original or new is the painting” [Novelty]. The artists were not informed of the mental status of Mrs. YCFZ — they were only told to grade the drawings in front of them. Even though her cognitive ability deteriorated over the course of those three years, her creative capacity had not.

She scored higher from her first to her last drawings; especially in measures of novelty and abstraction.

The frontal lobe is the seat of our personality. The obsessive, almost manic production of art could be due to a change in personality. Obsessive behaviors abound in patients with damage to this area. Tommy McHugh only spoke in rhyme. Jason Padgett scrubbed his hands endlessly, intensely preoccupied with germs. It could be that producing art is another obsession, since most patients describe it as “an urge to create.” Even though professional artists report the same desire, a glaring difference is apparent — they can inhibit these urges. A social aspect related to frontal lobe damage is disinhibition.

Breaking away from rule-based thinking can facilitate novel ideas and indeed a surge of creativity — or abstract, out of the box thinking.

The data suggests that minds of patients such as Mrs. YCFZ deteriorate in such a way that gives more access to their untapped potential. Which begs the tantalizing question: what are our brains really capable of?


Image Credit — Tommy McHugh.

de Souza, L., Guimarães, H., Teixeira, A., Caramelli, P., Levy, R., Dubois, B., & Volle, E. (2014). Frontal lobe neurology and the creative mind Frontiers in Psychology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00761

About the Author

Teodora Stoica is a PhD student in Translational Neuroscience at the University of Louisville in the NILCAMP Lab under the mentorship of Dr. Brendan Depue. She is currently using neuroimaging techniques to explore complicated mechanisms of emotion and their relationship to hormones in the two genders. She has worked in neuroscience and psychology research for over five years, contributing to the scientific understanding of the brain at Yale University and University of Maryland, Baltimore. You can find her curriculum vitae here.



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