For Jon Sarkin, it began in 1988 when he suddenly began experiencing tinnitus and abnormally sensitive hearing to certain sounds. A successful chiropractor with a practice in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, Jon’s condition was linked a blood vessel pressing on his acoustic nerve. Because of his worsening symptoms, he agreed to a delicate operation carried out by a Pittsburgh neurosurgeon in 1989. During the operation however, he began hemorrhaging and experienced a massive stroke that left him comatose for weeks. Doctors removed much of the left side of his brain and he had damage to his cerebellum as well. Despite a long rehabilitation, he was left permanently deaf in one ear with slurred speech, double vision, and an impaired sense of balance that forced him to walk with a cane.
Though he eventually returned to his practice in 1990, Sarkin found dealing with clients emotionally and physically exhausting despite frequent rest breaks. He also spent more time “doodling” on his letterhead paper and eventually sold several doodles to the New Yorker. After selling his practice in 1993, he decided to devote his time to drawing and caring for his three children while his wife acted as his interface with the outside world. While his neurological symptoms never improved and despite bouts of depression, Jon Sarkin has established a reputation as an artist with his first New York art show in 2003 and a life story that has since been optioned by Tom Cruise’s movie production company.
Can artistic ability suddenly develop as a result of brain disease? Cases of “sudden artistic output” following brain injury are relatively rare but unexpected artistic talent emerging in brain patients has been well-documented. While savant syndrome found in people suffering from severe learning disorders such as autism has become well-recognized through movies such as Rain Man, acquired savant syndrome, when a new talent suddenly develops in adults following illness is still poorly understood.
Along with brain injury and stroke, cases of acquired savant syndrome have been identified following frontotemporal dementia, temporal lobe disease, and most recently, Parkinson’s Disease. In a new review article published in Behavioral Neuroscience, Rivka Inzelberg of Tel Aviv University describes a number of cases of Parkinson’s patients suddenly developing new literary or artistic skills.
Although it is unclear whether this can be related to the actual disease or the dopamine treatment the patients received, these cases are even more remarkable considering the severe motor problems many of them experience due to Parkinson symptoms. While some cases involved patients who had artistic ability prior to their illness, onset of Parkinson’s Disease led to a radical change in the quality of the art they produced despite hand tremors or other problems.
According to one patient described by Susan Pinker who had been a regular painter before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, her paintings were enhanced by her illness and even felt that her dopamine medication may have played a role in improving her artistic output. “The new style is less precise but more vibrant.” she said, adding that “I have a need to express myself more.”
In Parkinson’s patients at least, the fundamental question is whether the new creativity is linked to the disease or dopamine medications such as L-Dopa. Too much dopamine can lead to Dopamine Dysregulation Syndrome (DDS) with symptoms such as reduced inhibition, sexual acting out, and obsessive compulsive behaviours. That can include compulsive writing, drawing, or other creative outlets. In many patients, these creative skills tend to rise as the dopamine levels in their brains increase and can then become reduced as their medications are cut back to curb other unwelcome symptoms. A recent study examining the link between Parkinson’s disease and creativity suggests that this creativity is completely separate from the impulsive behaviour seen in DDS patients and not a sign of illness as some clinical researchers suggested. This is welcome news to newly-creative Parkinson’s patients who expressed fear that cutting back on medication might eliminate their creativity.
In exploring possible reasons for increased creativity in Parkinson’s patients, Rivka Inzelberg raised several suggestions that may well apply to other cases of acquired savant syndrome in brain-injured patients as well. Inzelberg suggests that disinhibition may hold the key to understanding this increased creativity. Not quite the same thing as impulsivity, disinhibition involves the rejection of social norms and acting out in ways that are “riskier” than they normally would. Often seen in manic patients, people who are less inhibited are more likely to overcome any doubts they might have about their artistic ability. They simply write or paint for their own pleasure rather than worrying about what other people might think of their work. Even in patients with no previous artistic ability, the wish to do something novel can lead to them experimenting with new ways of expressing themselves, often when many of their previous activities are blocked by their symptoms.
Creativity is also a useful way of coping with anxiety since it provides a patient with an outlet to accomplish something worthwhile and to gain confidence. Many patients with temporal and frontal lobe disorders can find themselves producing new writing or artwork even when it has little importance to anyone but themselves. One example of this is the hypergraphia found in some temporal lobe patients involving an overwhelming urge to write. While some noteworthy cases such as Vincent Van Gogh and Fyodor Dostoevsky are well-known, most hypergraphia sufferers produce millions of words which may never have any literary value.
While patients can be encouraged to engage in painting, drawing, writing or other creative activity as part of occupational therapy, this activity needs to be carefully monitored to make sure that these new skills improve the quality of their lives and not be taken to extremes.
Understanding how this new creative drive affects the healing brain can teach us much about the nature of creativity, whether in brain patients or in neurologically healthy individuals. These insights may well help researcherrs learn how changes in the brain can lead to enhanced creativity, whether it takes the form of artistic, literary, or musical ability. Understanding how new talents develop may help us explore some of the many mysteries associated with why creativity happens.