1st June, 2000
The Art Of Dementia
people with artistic ability, born or made? If you had to pick
a life event, which you thought might trigger a hitherto undiscovered
talent such as whistling, it is unlikely that you would answer
with the term 'degenerative brain disease'. Yet it can happen.
Doctors in San Francisco recently reported on a number of people
suffering from a kind of dementia called fronto-temporal dementia;
even as parts of their brains were slowly dying and ceasing
to function, they developed entirely new artistic abilities.
Dr Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California
in San Francisco, talked to Andrew Luck-Baker about some of
his talented patients.
Causes Fronto-Temporal Dementia?
Whilst many cases of fronto-temporal dementia
are genetic, in the cases that Miller studied there was no history
of the disease. Throughout his study, however he was able to
identify similarities in the patients' make-up. Miller explains,
'The majority of the patients that I studied did not have
a strong family history of this illness. It therefore remains
somewhat mysterious, however there are two important findings
in these patients. One is that the neuro-chemical, serotonin
is profoundly depleted and I think that this leads some of them
to crave chocolate, sweets and to overeat. In others I think
that you develop a profound compulsion which is due to the lack
of serotonin. This compulsion contributes to the art and music
that they produce, because they become obsessed with their art
and they do it over and over again and I think that this constant
repetition really is at the core of their success.'
Degeneration Of The Left Side Of The
The anatomy of other types of dementia, such as in Alzheimer's
disease is very different. In fronto-temporal dementia the pattern
of deterioration is unique and as Miller's study shows the degeneration
in the left side of the brain, could allow creative impulses
to come through. He continues:
'What I discovered when I went through all of my patient population,
which is now in the hundreds, was that only a small percentage
of the patients showed this blossoming of visual or musical
capability. It seemed to be a group who degenerated primarily
on the left side of the brain and the left temporal lobe. This
degeneration knocks out language in a profound way and these
people loose the meaning of words.'
As the individual looses these abilities, what is happening
elsewhere in the brain? Miller explains:
'We think that the abilities that remain and indeed flourish
are probably in the back part of the brain in the posterior
temporal and parietal lobe. I have started to think of the left
hemisphere as a bully, a dominant hemisphere that suppresses
these visual and musical abilities and when it is turned off
we can see some of these abilities that were obviously, always
In the absence of a linguistic side of the brain, it might be
assumed that the patients would demonstrate a leaning towards
abstract art, with little or no reliance on symbolism. However,
whilst the choice of media varied from patient to patient -
music, painting and verse - Miller was able to identify what
he believes to be the source of their creativity:
'These patients give us a hint of what goes on in the right
hemisphere. They had totally non-symbolic art there was no abstract,
conceptual component to it. What they tended to do was produce
an image which was dependent on memory and their imagination.
In some cases these images were modified by components in the
language we still see extraordinary human production'
The Chocoholic Whistler - A Case Study
Out of the blue one of Miller's patients decided that she would
like to whistle. She began to compose limericks mostly about
her beloved pet dog. As she worked on perfecting her whistling
technique she would often whistle very complicated classical
musical pieces. As common with other patients', she was partial
to chocolate and the staff began to refer to her as the Chocoholic
In Miller's view the rhymes and tunes that the woman recites
have been learned and reproduced. She is drawing on an element
of her past and is most likely unaware of what she is doing.
'I don't think there is any music theory, it is just whatever
tunes that are jangling around in the brain that just come out
into the world. The awareness of these people is very minimal,
I think they enjoy doing their work, but don't self reflect
on it very much and don't talk about it.'
Thought Without Language
Miller's research allows scientists to make a clearer map of
the brain and it is hoped that with new functional imaging techniques,
which parts of the brain are being activated during different
illnesses can be established.
The findings of this study also go some way to addressing the
debate concerning whether conscious thought is possible without
language. In Miller's mind there can be no doubt:
'These are people who have minimal language and in some cases
no language, but they continue to produce very beautiful paintings
or music. It suggests that the right hemisphere has a very different
contribution to consciousness, but also a very important contribution
and without language we still see this extraordinary human production.'
Bruce Miller can be heard on Science In Action.
Find this on our interactive
to the Dementia Research Group, this form of degenerative
brain disorder is characterised by:
Early Loss Of Social And Personal Awareness
Mental Rigidity And Inflexibility
Loss Of Insight