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  3. Arias M. Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal syndrome and autoscopic phenomena. Neurologia. 2016 Jun 20. [Epub ahead of print]
  4. Budrys V. Frida Kahlo's neurological deficits and her art. Prog Brain Res. 2013;203:241-254.
  5. Pringsheim T, Wiltshire K, Day L, Dykeman J, Steeves T, Jette N. The incidence and prevalence of Huntington's disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Mov Disord. 2012;27:1083-1091.
  6. Ringman JM. The Huntington disease of Woody Guthrie: another man done gone. Cogn Behav Neurol. 2007;20:238-243.
  7. Farley T. Larger than life: dyslexia, paralysis, face blindness—nothing comes between legendary artist Chuck Close and his canvas, except a brush. Neurology Now. 2011;7:14-16, 18-19.
  8. Hylton WS. The mysterious metamorphosis of Chuck Close. New York Times. Accessed August 9, 2016.
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John Watson
Freelance writer
Brooklyn, New York

Disclosure: John Watson has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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From Jazz Bass to Impressionism, How Brain Disorders Influence Art

John Watson  |  August 25, 2016

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Slide 1

The Artistic Mind: Assailed, Undaunted

The neurocognitive underpinnings that separate a master artist from a Sunday hobbyist remain a mystery, and probably will until advances in genetic testing or imaging unlock the recipe for genius. However, there is also something to be gained from considering the lives of transcendent artists who have contended with that most earthly matter of illness. This collection looks at the painters, writers, and musicians whose neurologic conditions informed, and sometimes interrupted, their life's work. They show how the artistic mind often exhibits tremendous resolve despite newly placed obstacles. Knowledge of their condition can also give us new means to contemplate these artists' work, not in totality but as a small piece of a larger puzzle. In doing so, they can help achieve one of art's greatest objectives—to shine a light on human experience at the very place it is created, understood, and expressed: our brains.

Image from Dreamstime

Slide 2

Willem de Kooning

An assessment of the late-period paintings of the pioneering abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) states, "The forms intermingled in harmonious combinations, the colors surged in stunning ever-changing shapes."[1] What astounds is that these words do not come from an art historian, but rather a clinician trying to make sense of how de Kooning was able to create such works years into a diagnosis of Alzheimer disease. No longer able to perform basic activities of daily living, beginning in the 1980s a resurgent de Kooning nonetheless returned to a process-rich creative output, with certain works going through up to 16 stages of development. With more than 300 paintings, de Kooning's late work confounds expectations of neurocognitive decline.[1] This productivity may indicate the preservation of the artist's working, procedural, and episodic memory, and other neurologic underpinnings crucial to seeing out artistic concepts.[1] The painting above is representative of de Kooning's late-period work, with its precise line and color features.

Images from Dreamstime and Alamy

Slide 3

Fyodor Dostoevsky

A titan of 19th-century literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky's (1821-1881) searching depictions of individuals facing stark moral crises in otherwise unjust societies are regarded as foundational texts to the fields of psychoanalysis and existential philosophy.[2] Dostoevsky also experienced recurrent epilepsy, with ecstatic auras before seizures. This presentation is echoed by the protagonist of his novel The Idiot, who asks, "What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree?" Deciding what to do with an overwhelming sensation of grace, whose uncertain cause straddles the disparate worlds of religion and man, is often a key motivator in his plots. Epilepsy's possibly divine origins have been noted since ancient times, and hypothesized as a source of several historical religious visions.[3] Modern imaging attributes ecstatic auras to activation of the anterior insular cortex.[3]

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 4

Frida Kahlo

Few 20th-century artists foregrounded their own person within their work as unflinchingly or evocatively as Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Among her iconic, instantly recognizable paintings, are those depicting her lifelong battles with several neurologic-related maladies. Kahlo was born with spina bifida; contracted polio at the age of 6; and endured a spinal injury after surviving a traumatic tram crash at 18, during the recovery from which the bed-confined woman took up painting. This already overburdened medical profile was compounded later in life, when she developed symptoms strongly suggestive of reflex sympathetic dystrophy.[4] Kahlo's legendary perseverance—depicted above in a 1944 painting—makes her an ideal avatar for everyday patients struggling with neurologic illness.

Image from Alamy

Slide 5

Woody Guthrie

A tireless documenter of American lives, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) created a vast archive of classic songs, most famously "This Land Is Your Land." His output and principled political activism laid the groundwork for the burgeoning folk music scene of the late 1950s. It was a movement that he would not be able to participate in himself, as Guthrie was by that point relegated to a series of hospitals. After being incorrectly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, doctors eventually determined that he had Huntington disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder with an estimated worldwide prevalence of 2.71 per 100,000.[5] The 5 years before Guthrie manifested overt symptoms were exceedingly productive, leading some to attribute this creative surge to drives created by his subclinical Huntington disease.[6] Guthrie died at the age of 55, but his story has given a much-needed face to this "orphan disease." His widow Marjorie founded the Huntington's Disease Society of America, which spearheads patient advocacy and research efforts.

Image from Dreamstime and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 6

Chuck Close

"I'm a rolling neurologic clinic," the contemporary American painter Chuck Close (1940-present) has said. "You name it, I've got it."[7] Close, wheelchair-bound since 1988 after suffering a spinal stroke that caused partial paralysis, has continually noted the outsized influence of dyslexia and prosopagnosia (face blindness) have played in his art. These conditions converge and are enacted for all to see in Close's work as a large-scale portrait artist. By breaking down his subjects' faces to their constituent parts, he is able to recompose them using a grid system of individual cells of paint blotches that, when viewed from a few steps back, merge with uncanny verisimilitude. Recently, Close's neurologic health became the subject of ongoing speculation, when a lengthy profile in the New York Times chronicled a late-life professional and personal metamorphosis resulting from what was said to be a mistaken diagnosis of Alzheimer disease.[8] Although the artist declined to share what the correct diagnosis was, it seems highly plausible that his reckoning with it will play out on the canvas.

Image from Alamy

Slide 7

Stevie Wonder

Synesthesia, in which one sensory stimulus consistently and automatically triggers simultaneous perceptions in another, is thought to occur in 1%-4% of the population.[9] Given that synesthesia is relatively common, it is no wonder that this condition is so frequently reported among artists, including Kanye West and Vladimir Nabokov (to name two people rarely used in a sentence together). A unique case is found in the musician Stevie Wonder (1950-present). Blind since the first days of life owing to retinopathy of prematurity, Wonder has stated that he can nonetheless see the colors of music. This is in line with studies of congenitally blind persons, whose brains' exhibit sensory independent, task-selective organization, regardless of limited visual experience.[10] A study comparing controls with individuals with colored-music synesthesia observed that the latter had different hemispheric patterns of fractional anisotropy, an index of white-matter integrity, in the inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus, a major white-matter pathway that connects visual and auditory association areas to frontal regions.[11]

Images from Dreamstime

Slide 8

Friedrich Nietzsche

An untreatable scourge in the pre-penicillin days, syphilis claimed several probable high-profile victims in the arts throughout history, including the German writer and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). After a period of mounting health troubles, including headaches, limb pain, and nervous complaints, Nietzsche was forced to leave his professorship and spend a decade travelling to seek relief. This was followed by a time of pronounced oscillation between euphoria and deep depression, which syphilis researchers call the "paretic prodrome." The ecstatic side of this clinical equation yielded considerable benefits, and Nietzsche's prolific writings during the period would earn the admiration of Sigmund Freud, who attributed the quality of work to "the loosening process resulting from paresis." Nietzsche's work came to an abrupt halt after he experienced a breakdown the year before his death.[12]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 9

Lovis Corinth

An acclaimed painter in the school of German impressionism, Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) was at the height of his craft in December 1911, when he suffered a right hemispheric stroke. Months of slow recovery, and attendant depression, followed.[13,14] Far from derailing his career, Corinth's stroke instead demarcated a new era of creativity. His poststroke production swelled with 500 new paintings, 800 new prints, and various other pieces, representing more than half of his life's work.[13] Naturalistic portraiture and landscape paintings gave way to a markedly more expressionistic and subjective style, deeply grounded in matters of the human body. Corinth would become fond of the maxim, "Drawing means to omit details."[13] Though undoubtedly reflective of his infirmity and psychological state, this shift also bears the mark of his likely left-side hemiparesis and hemineglect.

Images from Dreamstime and Alamy

Slide 10

Charles Mingus

A figure of legendarily imposing skill and temperament, the upright bass player and composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979) more than earned his nickname as "the Angry Man of Jazz." It was a force of life that he harnessed to incredible effect on seminal jazz recordings and playing alongside other legends of the form, such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Mingus' already volcanic temper became increasingly erratic, and his career began to suffer. In 1977, Mingus was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a condition strongly associated with the depression and impaired social functioning that the musician manifested so clearly in the final decade of his life.[15] Undaunted, despite being confined to a wheelchair, Mingus continued to lead recording sessions and seek a miracle cure. He is said to have hummed his last compositions into a tape recorder in the remaining days of his life.[16]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 11

Jazz music itself has been theorized to have a neurologic condition at its roots, in the person of Charles "Buddy" Bolden (1877-1931). An electrifying cornet player, Bolden melded the popular music of his day, like ragtime, blues, and waltzes. However, it was his radical decision to break free of their rigid structures in moments of pure improvisation that some see as jazz's foundation. Bolden was troubled by alcohol dependency and was eventually hospitalized with a diagnosis of "dementia praecox," now known as schizophrenia. In a 2001 academic presentation, Dr Sean Spence of the University of Sheffield hypothesized that Bolden's disease-related cognitive and motor function impairment created the conditions that made improvisation necessary.[17] Arguably America's first wholly native art form, jazz lays claim to many fathers forged in the crucible of this country's complex, painful history. Though it's impossible to identify Bolden as the originator of jazz, his story is emblematic of the ecstatic beauty that its earliest pioneers wrenched from agonizing barriers imposed both outwardly and inwardly.

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 12

Vincent van Gogh

Severed ears, emotional outbursts, time spent in an asylum, and eventual suicide (although others claim murder): The life of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) burned as briefly and intensely as the images in the post-Impressionistic master's paintings. Its quasi-mythic nature has contributed mightily to the ever-harmful cliché of the doomed artist, and has proved equally alluring to clinicians, who have turned van Gogh into the "great white whale" of retrospective diagnoses. Armed with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, they have sorted through the direct and tangential evidence of van Gogh's life, foisting upon him a series of clinical explanations (more than 30, by the count of a now surely outdated 2002 review paper[18]) ranging from neurosyphilis and frontal lobe epilepsy to lead poisoning and Ménière disease. Collectively, these tell us less about the artist than they do about the inadequacy of retrospective diagnoses. They can be viewed as cautionary tales of reducing transcendent artists, such as those featured in this overview, to a simple condition. For now, artistic accomplishment remains mostly the province of the unknown.

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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