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The Mind Unleashed: What is the Impact of a Brain Injury on Creativity?

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Science has shown that humans are wired to create. 

According to Dr. Tina Seelig, Professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering (MS&E) at Stanford University, “our brains are built for creative problem solving, and it is easy to both uncover and enhance our natural inventiveness.  The human brain evolved over millions of years from a small collection of nerve cells with limited functionality to a fabulously complex organ that is optimized for innovation. Our highly evolved brains are always assessing our ever-changing environment, mixing and matching our responses to fit each situation.  Every sentence we craft is unique, each interaction we have is distinctive, and every decision we make is done with our own free will. That we have the ability to come up with an endless set of novel responses to the world around us is a constant reminder that we are naturally inventive.[1]

But what happens to peoples’ creativity if they suffer a traumatic brain injury, caused by an accident (at work or on the road), illness or medical negligence?  Does creativity decrease?  Or can formerly creatively challenged individuals suddenly undergo a personal renaissance?

The parts of the brain that govern creativity

Contrary to popular belief, neuroscientists have confirmed that creativity draws on the brain as a whole; debunking the ‘right-brain’ myth[2].  This complex process consists of many interacting cognitive systems (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions, with different brain regions recruited to handle each task and to work together as a team to get the job done.

One of the most important new revelations in neuroscience has been the discovery of the ‘default network’ of the brain.  This comes to the fore when we are not purposefully engaged in other tasks.   It enables us to construct personal meaning from our experiences, imagine other perspectives and scenarios, comprehend stories, and reflect on mental and emotional states — both our own and those of others.  It should come as no surprise then that the activity of this so-called “imagination network” also informs our most creative ideas[3].

Creative geniuses have known about the ‘default network’ for years.  For example, Charles Dickens was a dedicated walker. He once wrote, “I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.” Scarcely a day went by that Dickens didn’t flee his desk and take to the streets of London and its suburbs. He routinely walked as many as 20 miles a day, and once set out at 2 a.m. to walk from his house in London to his country residence in Gad’s Hill, Kent, 30 miles away[4].  Not only did walking help him develop his stories in his mind, but he picked up ideas from the hustle and bustle of the streets around him.

A recent Stanford University study has shown that walking markedly improves people’s ability to generate creative ideas, even when they sat down after the walk.

You cannot miss something you never had

There is no doubt that neurological damage suffered later in life can have a detrimental effect on a person’s creative abilities.  Many neurological disorders that are acquired later in life, such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, brain tumours, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease, can impair our previously attained creative abilities by damaging our perceptual skills[5].

However, many people who either never develop certain perceptual skills (such as those born blind or deaf) or who lose their sensory perception during early childhood my go on to develop stronger surviving senses; for example, a child with visual impairment can develop a heightened sense of hearing or touch.  This can lead to great creative talent, for example, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder in music and the legendary Helen Keller, who lost her ability to hear and see following a disease (thought to be meningitis), she contracted at 18 months old. She went on to become an accomplished author and an inspiration for millions.[6].

Rain Man concussion

In rare cases, a person who suffers a traumatic brain injury can experience a dramatic creative awakening.  For example, there are examples of people who had no previous interest in art suddenly begin to paint beautiful works, or pick up an instrument and play by ear.

These unusual cases are sometimes referred to as "acquired savant syndrome[7]."

Without doubt, the best-known autistic savant is a fictional one, Raymond Babbitt, as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 movie Rain Man.  Savants almost always begin to show their gift early on in childhood.

An example of this extraordinary rare phenomenon, (there have only been around 15-25 cases ever recorded) is Jason Padgett, who describes what happened to him in his book, Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel," (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014).  In 2002, Mr Padgett was viciously assaulted outside a karaoke bar and left with severe concussion, post-traumatic stress disorder and the ability to visualise complex mathematical objects and physics concepts intuitively. The injury, whilst devastating, seems to have unlocked part of his brain that makes everything in his world appear to have a mathematical structure.

"I see shapes and angles everywhere in real life" — from the geometry of a rainbow, to the fractals in water spiraling down a drain, Padgett said in a 2014 interview with Live Science. “It's just really beautiful[8]”.

Although the exact mechanisms at work in the brains of savants have never been identified, and can vary from case to case, several studies dating back to at least the 1970s have found left-hemispheric damage in autistic savants with prodigious artistic, mathematical, and memory skills[9].  One hypothesis on what causes acquired savant syndrome is that the areas ravaged by disease or affected by injury—those associated with logic, verbal communication, and comprehension—have actually been inhibiting latent artistic abilities present in those people all along. As the left brain goes dark, the circuits keeping the right brain ‘in check’, disappear. The hypothesis states that the skills do not emerge as a result of newly acquired brain power; they emerge because for the first time, the areas of the right brain associated with creativity can operate uninhibited[10].

Conclusion

A brain injury can have devastating effects on a victim’s life.  Even those rare few who do experience an increase in creativity following head trauma must often learn to cope with other disabilities.

If the brain injury was caused by fault on the part of an organisation or individual, a victim may be able to seek financial compensation to help fund treatment and rebuild their life.

At IBB, our personal injury team, led by Malcolm Underhill, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent those who have suffered from a traumatic brain injury and wish to claim compensation for negligence. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at enquiries@ibbclaims.co.uk  or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence.

 

 

 

 

[1] Interview with http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2471-creativity-innovation-learned.html

[2] http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/ten_habits_of_highly_creative_people

[3] Ibid

[4] http://kottke.org/12/02/charles-dickens-liked-to-walk

[5] http://www.mdedge.com/clinicalneurologynews/article/47539/alzheimers-cognition/creativity-dims-disorders-diminish

[6] Ibid

[7] https://braindecoder.com/post/when-brain-damage-gives-rise-to-artistic-creativity-1054472410

[8] http://www.livescience.com/45349-brain-injury-turns-man-into-math-genius.html

[9] http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-02/when-brain-damage-unlocks-genius-within

[10] Ibid

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