Artistic Ability After a Stroke

Woman painting watercolour outdoor
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A stroke is known to cause physical and cognitive disabilities. But, did you know that in some exceptional situations, a stroke could actually improve the artistic ability of the stroke survivor? It certainly is not a typical effect of stroke, but there are enough documented stories of stroke survivors and brain injury survivors who have gained an accentuation of artistic ability that it is considered a real and validated effect of stroke.

Strangely enough, there are not only instances of improved artistic abilities after a stroke, there are detailed narratives describing de novo artistic capabilities after a stroke. A post-stroke de novo capability means that a new artistic talent emerged after a stroke, rather than simply the sharpening or improvement of already existing creative gifts. 

What Kind of Artistic Abilities Can Emerge After a Stroke?

Most of the detailed accounts of de novo artistic skills among stroke survivors describe individuals who first began to draw and/or paint after having had a stroke. There are not confirmed narratives that tell of stroke survivors developing other types of artistic gifts, such as musical skills or sculpting abilities or literary genius.

Interestingly, there are more descriptions of people with dementia developing de novo artistic talents than there are of stroke survivors who demonstrate emerging creativity. But it is the stroke survivor stories that have pointed medical science towards the region of the brain that is most likely responsible for de novo artistic capabilities. The proposed neurobiological explanations for how brain damage might trigger artistic talents may also explain why creativity is a more common consequence of dementia than it is of stroke. 

How Does De Novo Artistic Ability Happen in Stroke Survivors?

Interestingly, two stroke survivors with de novo painting abilities were recently described in separate case reports from different countries. The two survivors had strokes in the left insular cortex. The insular cortex of the brain is part of the cerebral cortex and it is known to control consciousness and self-awareness.

The left cerebral cortex and the right cerebral cortex are quite different. In right-handed people, the left side of the cerebral cortex typically controls math and verbal skills, while the right side of the cerebral cortex typically controls spatial skills and the ability to appreciate the three-dimensional aspects of objects. Both patients described in the case reports were right-handed.

One patient, a woman from France, was described in 2010 in the Journal Pain. Her doctors explain that after her left insular cortex stroke, she developed not only de novo painting capabilities, but she also experienced a compulsion to paint. Interestingly, the medical team also described a phenomenon in which the woman reported the experience of pain when she painted with what was described as ‘cold’ colors, indicating that her act of painting was heavily tied to her stroke-induced brain injury.

Doctors in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Boston, Massachusetts described another stroke survivor, a 67-year-old man, who had a stroke in 2009. He had survived an ischemic stroke affecting a wide area of the left cerebral cortex, including the left insular cortex. Described as a former construction worker who had not had any previous experience or exposure to art, this amazing stroke survivor began drawing and painting after his stroke. Incidentally, he had been right-handed prior to his stroke, but after his stroke, he began to use his left hand instead of his right hand.

Medical scientists who study the unusual phenomena of de novo artistic gifts after stroke propose a number of explanations for the new artistic abilities that can emerge in the lives of some stroke survivors as they recover from a stroke. The explanation has to do with the insular cortex.

Our healthy brain allows us to function appropriately in society, using the accepted social conventions that often go against primitive drives and inappropriate behaviors. The insular cortex plays a large role in maintaining these social constructs. When it is damaged, then selected underlying basic human instincts that are typically suppressed are permitted to take over.

Some neuropsychologists suggest that all (or most) people already possess an innate artistic genius that may be inhibited by the self-control that we learn in order to be able to function in a civilized society. According to this theory, once the insular cortex is injured, the natural predisposition of artistic creativity is then released and allowed to flourish.

Neuroscientists suggest that artistic talents may be 'hiding' in healthy people due to the strong inhibitions that are made possible through the functions of a normal, healthy brain. This can explain why there are more reports of individuals with dementia who suddenly begin to communicate through art. Dementia, more so than stroke, is characterized by a lack of inhibition and freely expressed behaviors that may even be inappropriate.

Another explanation is that the right cerebral cortex is responsible for depth perception, an important part of producing drawings and paintings. It is well-known that after a stroke, survivors undergo a process called neuroplasticity, which forces some healthy regions of the brain to work overtime to compensate for the injured regions. The exceptional stroke survivors who develop de novo artistic talents after a left insular stroke could potentially be experiencing neuroplasticity involving a hyperactivation of the right cerebral cortex.

Artistic Abilities After a Stroke

For the most part, artists lose their talents and capabilities to create artistic subtleties after a stroke. A team of doctors from Parma, Italy describes an overall decline in the detail, complexity, and sophistication of the works of established artists who have had a stroke. The vast majority of artists who have strokes affecting the right cerebral cortex lose the ability to represent visual depth and abstract concepts as vividly as prior to the stroke.

Strokes may cause changes in vision, such as loss of peripheral vision or loss of color vision. Stroke survivors who display new artistic talents or who experience an improvement in artistic capabilities are certainly the exception rather than the rule.

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