Pictures as a neurological tool: lessons from enhanced and emergent artistry in brain disease

Brain. 2012 Jun;135(Pt 6):1947-63. doi: 10.1093/brain/awr314. Epub 2012 Feb 1.


Pictures created spontaneously by patients with brain disease often display impaired or diminished artistry, reflecting the patient's cerebral damage. This article explores the opposite: those pictures created in the face of brain disease that show enhanced or enduring artistry, and those that emerge for the first time in artistically naïve patients. After comments on background issues relating to the patient and the viewer, the paintings and drawings are considered in relation to the heterogeneous conditions in which this artistic creativity is seen. These conditions include various dementias-most notably frontotemporal lobar dementia, stroke, Parkinson's disease, autism and related disorders and psychiatric disease, epilepsy, migraine and trauma. In the discussion, it is argued that evidence of underlying brain dysfunction revealed by these pictures often rests on the abnormal context in which the pictures are created, or on changes in artistry demonstrated by a sequence of pictures. In the former, the compulsive element and sensory and emotional accompaniments are often important features; in the latter, evolving changes are evident, and have included depiction of increasing menace in portrayal of faces. The occurrence of synaesthesia, and its relation to creativity, are briefly discussed in respect of two unusual patients, followed by considering the role of the anterior and frontal lobes, mesolimbic connections and the right hemisphere. In at least some patients, impaired inhibition leading to paradoxical functional facilitation, with compensatory changes particularly in the right posterior hemisphere, is likely to be pivotal in enabling unusual artistry to emerge; preservation of language, however, is not a prerequisite. Many patients studied have been artists, and it appears possible that some of those with an artistic predisposition may be more likely to experience pathologically obsessive creativity. The discussion concludes that occasionally pictures created by these rare individuals unexpectedly prove to be an invaluable but little studied tool for investigating the dysfunctioning brain.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Diseases* / diagnosis
  • Brain Diseases* / physiopathology
  • Brain Diseases* / psychology
  • Creativity*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Paintings* / psychology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*