Creativity, Words and Surprises

What if you lost the ability to talk? For someone whose moniker is tmacwords, the thought is pretty darn chilling. But would happen if, with language gone, your brain was now open to a flood of  incredible visual and auditory information? What would happen if the creativity and focus you put into words could be turned into mind-blowing art or music?

Thus is the story I listened to this morning on NPR’s RadioLab. The podcast I heard, Unraveling Bolero, was so stunning I had to listen to it twice.

The story is about a type of dementia that affects the left side of the brain, where our language and math skills live. This  disease attacked Maurice Ravel, best known for Bolero (Go on, sing along with me… “Dah dah, da da da da da da da Dah Dah) and, 60 years later, a brilliant woman named Anne Theresa Adams.

Adams started off as a top notch cancer scientist. In her 50s, she suddenly dropped science and started painting. A lot. She created painting after painting, focusing first on buildings, than on microbes, than on strawberries. Until she became fascinated by Bolero and painted her most famous work, Unraveling Bolero:

Adams work is all about repetition (as is Ravel’s piece). She created her painting by analyzing Ravel’s music, by note, tempo, volume and tone. She assigned a color to each element and then put it together into this work of art.

So here’s what kind of chilled my spine. A few years after creating this work, Adams started to lose her ability to talk. At first, she forgot words. Then she lost the ability to string together sentences. Then all words failed her. And a few years after Ravel completed Bolero, he started to lose his ability to talk. At first, he forgot words. Then sentences. Then all words failed him. They both passed away shortly after all language was gone.

Ravel and Adams suffered from a rare disease called frontotemporal dementia, aka Pick’s disease. Instead of dementia attacking the entire brain, only certain areas of the brain are affected. In this case, the language center. But with language shut off, other areas of the brain all at once can flourish. Instead of using words to talk about experience, the brain needs a new way to express the incredible flood of images its receiving.

This article in the New York Times  (totally worth reading, BTW) describes it better than I can:

By then, the circuits in Dr. Adams’s brain had reorganized. Her left frontal language areas showed atrophy. Meanwhile, areas in the back of her brain on the right side, devoted to visual and spatial processing, appeared to have thickened.

OK, so maybe I am a total nerd. But I am fascinated by this. Kind of like when people lose their vision, they say that their hearing becomes sharper. But times ten. (Yes, point taken. This disease kills its victim pretty quickly so it’s not all roses and joy. I do get that.)

And yet, think about the beauty that was created in the amazing minds of these artists, even as parts of their cortex was crumbling. I’m just plain blown away…


One Response

  1. Great website. Lots of useful information here.
    I’m sending it to several friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you in your effort!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: