- Neurology of the Arts: Painting, Music, Literature
From the end of the 20th century a great deal of attention has focused on the brain. Many, as a result, have thought about whether neurology now might provide additional insight into the workings of the artistic mind. Specific cases accentuate this possibility. In the 1970s, for example, Oliver Sacks worked with an artist, Jonathan I., who became colorblind after his car was hit by a truck. Prior to the accident Mr. I. painted abstract, color-rich images and experienced colors when presented with musical tones. After the accident he lost his ability to see color and even lost the experience of color in response to sounds. Despite this, he continued to paint—in black-and-white, refusing to put aside the driving force of his life. More recently, while conducting a class critique in May 1997, the Berkeley artist and professor Katherine Sherwood was struck suddenly with a searing headache. Thirty seconds later, the right half of her body was paralyzed. A thin-walled collection of arteries in the left side of her brain had collapsed, and she suffered a massive stroke. Only 44 years old at the time, Sherwood was determined to return to painting and has done so. One of the most noteworthy aspects of Sherwood's story is the degree to which she, like Mr. I., was resolute in her determination to continue her artistic activities. In her case she did so despite finding that her painting hand was paralyzed; eventually she returned to teaching as well. Sherwood now claims that although her stroke erased some skills, it also led her to learn new ones, such as a new objectivity about her work.
These contemporary cases are recent additions to the literature connecting neurology and art. Neurology and the Arts, edited by F. Clifford Rose, brings many topics within this literature to light, combining them in a source book compiled from papers delivered at the 2001 Mansell Bequest Symposium of the Medical Society of London. These essays, I believe, offer great insight into case studies that have not received enough attention to date. Indeed, it is not easy to choose specific highlights from such a high-quality collection that reaches from anatomy to the neurological circumstances of historical artists such as da Vinci, Goya and van Gogh.
George K. York, a neurologist, sets the tone in the opening essay, where he notes that
thinking neurologically is a creative act in the same way that thinking artistically, musically or scientifically is creative. Neurologists may not be able to say where the artistic process is located in the brain, but they can at least have the pleasure of knowing what it is to be creative (p. 9).
These words not only encourage readers to think about creativity per se but also aid in taking the idea of creativity to another level when they come upon later essays that examine the art of well-known neurological figures. For example, Christopher Gardner Thorpe's essay "The Art of Sir Charles Bell" points out that although best known as an anatomist, physiologist and neurologist, Bell's skills as an artist had a major impact on medicine and anatomical training in art. Indeed, his success in illustrating the body and offering medical descriptions communicated information that otherwise would have been hard to capture when he lived, before the advent of photography. In addition, Gardner-Thorpe's discussion of Bell's watercolor work offered more insight into his feeling for art, although I wish the reproductions had been in color.
Similarly intriguing are the range of ideas that point to neurological references and misconceptions often found within the literature. For example, it is often claimed that the disease depicted in Masaccio's St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (1426-1427) is polio. Yet this is one of several instances where the polio label is probably unlikely, since the first known epidemic of this disease dates to the 18th century. Similarly, there are...