Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Surprising Creativity Associated with Some Forms of Dementia

We think of dementia as the overarching destruction of the brain resulting in an inability to perform daily tasks or interact appropriately, but that’s not always the case.

Dementia is a word used to describe a variety of cognitive illnesses that mostly impact memory and other cognitive abilities. It has been estimated that approximately 50–70K people have one specific type of dementia — FTD. But the numbers may be far greater than that figure compiled over a decade ago. Many times, the disorder will be misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or another type of dementia. No one knows the exact count, and we may never know it.

Dementia has long been linked to the loss of cognitive capacities. Meanwhile, recent research has discovered a fascinating phenomenon: some people with particular types of dementia display startling bursts of creativity. Both scientists and artists are now examining the complex relationship between the two in light of the unexpected link between cognitive decline and creativity.

Memory loss and cognitive decline that determine a person’s identity have historically been seen as negative effects of dementia. Memory loss and cognitive impairment are two features that frequently characterize Alzheimer’s disease, the most prevalent type of dementia. Nonetheless, some people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias related to it have demonstrated artistic aptitude and creative talents that seem to get better as their cognitive functions decline. These new abilities appear to have emerged at the beginning of the disorder.

Formerly called Pick’s Disease, this dementia brings about changes in brain connections, which, according to researchers, may be the cause of this contradictory association between dementia and creativity. A novel and inventive concept may arise as certain neural routes fail, possibly opening up new, less common neural pathways. This may help to explain why some people who may not have previously shown an aptitude for the arts suddenly demonstrate it through their writing, singing, or other creative endeavors. The brain appears to respond to destruction in a manner unthought of previously, and it apparently releases new areas to work unlike before.

The famed abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning is one of the best-known examples of creativity coming back from dementia. In his later years, De Kooning received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, but he still created amazing works of art despite his cognitive impairment. Similar instances of people with dementia making complex visual art, composing music, and recounting stories on the spot have been reported.

Vincent van Gogh may have been afflicted with this form of dementia, and here the speculation about age, dementia, and creativity merge if not sufficiently, to raise our curiosity. The protective factor of creativity is one of the more interesting aspects of how the brain might react to some intrusion bringing about mental change. It is a gain of function in a time of neurodegeneration, and that seems more than unusual.

Another example of this type of dementia-driven creativity can be found in the work of Ravel. One melodic clause appears again in his piece “Boléro,” which lasts fifteen minutes. This repetitive behavior may be a sign of FTD patients’ tendency toward obsessive repetition.

First discovered by Bruce Miller at a VA in California, the disease is related to which side of the brain is being attacked and its abilities diminished. In one study of people with FTD, the left temporal lobe had gotten worse, but at the same time, areas of the brain involved in processing visual information had become overactive. Researchers are now beginning to study this unusual creativity of dementia and the normal brains of creative people.

The complexity of the human brain can be better understood by understanding this phenomenon, which also has implications for treatment methods. Participating in artistic activities with people who have dementia may improve their quality of life by giving them a way to express themselves and a way to cope with the frustrations of cognitive loss. Sometimes, this creative ability may appear when speech is lost as in the case of the biologist Anne Adams. To activate these dormant creative capacities, dementia care has already investigated art therapy and other creative approaches.

The surprisingly high level of creativity linked to some forms of dementia has shown the complex link between cognitive decline and artistic expression. By highlighting the potential for creative growth even in the context of neurological diseases, this phenomenon contradicts traditional ideas of dementia as only a degenerative condition.

Investigating this link advances our knowledge of the human brain and creates opportunities for cutting-edge therapeutic strategies. We are still wandering in the vast and highly secretive forest of the brain, and, thus far, the roads we have found have revealed unexpected opportunities for treatments far afield from what we usually prescribe.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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