Friday, May 18, 2007

Paint Your Way Out

Robert Genn's Twice Weekly Newsletter

The Painters Keys
May 18, 2007

Dear Karen,

Creativity and the onset of dementia have recently prompted a great deal of study and speculation. Dr. Luis Fornazzari of the Memory Clinic at the Division of Neurology, St. Michael's Hospital, University of Toronto, in a paper published on Tuesday, stated, "Art should be understood as a cognitive function with its own neural networks." His findings include the discovery that painters, musicians and writers who develop brain disorders may continue to be competent in their art for some time after losing other faculties. Our main brain, it seems, is vulnerable to attack just as a computer hard drive is to viruses, while our art brain is like an outboard memory card--somewhat protected or at least delayed in its potential corruption.

French composer Maurice Ravel, for example, composed "Bolero" and other significant pieces ("Concerto for the Left Hand" and the "Concerto in G") well after his dementia began in 1927. The main characteristic of all artists seems to be that skills, techniques and methodologies need to be well learned or self-taught. In other words, ingrained skills persist and can be the last to go.

All this is based on new understandings of Brain Reserve Capacity--neuroscientists call it "BRC." The building of extra capacity, which largely happens in the early and middle years, is a clear catalyst to a longer, more contributive, and more fulfilling life. Many researchers such as Konrad Mauer and Bruce Miller are now suggesting that there is a "tremendous potential for preservation of brain functions induced by the visual arts." That being said, other effective methods that build BRC are education, occupational attainment, bilingualism, physical activity, proper diet, absence of addictive drugs including alcohol and tobacco, and social networking.

There's plenty of evidence for the persistence of art facility in the human brain. A well-known Canadian painter with advanced Alzheimer's Disease was able to continue to paint in her habitual manner--while she was unable to perform simple drawing and writing tests. I'm sure some of our readers will be able to help out with further anecdotal material. For years I've confused my hot mush with my raw carrots, but I still seem to be able to paint fairly well. Maybe I'm going to paint my way out.

Best regards,


PS: "I have to go on writing because I wouldn't be able to go on without writing. It is the only function that works for me, and without that function, I would die." (Farley Mowat)

Esoterica: An interesting issue in these studies deals with what is known as the "Cognitive Theory of Metaphor." One of the principal features of many art forms, metaphor seems to work through the same brain mechanisms that are used to perform abstract reasoning. Quick and illuminating metaphoric connectivity can be noticed in some elderly people who might be otherwise challenged. British novelist Iris Murdoch, for example, was able to write her last novel, "Jackson's Dilemma," rich in wit and metaphor, after her daily journaling and other functions had deteriorated significantly.

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