by Dr. B. Steffert and T. Steffert
The emerging field of Neuroaesthetics describes the brain’s propensity to recognise shape, form, colour, illumination and movement and how it is built on by great artists to produce art that gives us a similar pleasure – or a peak-shift in the brain. This is a biologically based frissant of pleasure, mediated by the chemistry of reward, Dopamine.
Given that artistic ability is modulated by many different aspects of the human brain (some emphasise form, others colour and so on) there are individual differences to which one aspect of brain functioning is enhanced or inhibited in different people. In Dyslexia, good right hemisphere skills that led to artistic ability were originally suggested by Geschwind to be a trade-off; better right hemisphere skills mean more creativity at the cost of left hemisphere mediated linguistic skills. Over the years this has been refined with more specific conceptualisation and better brain imaging techniques.
Connections between brain areas have been delineated, visual pathways and eye movements identified as different between Dyslexics and non-Dyslexics, all giving the same message – the trade off for good visual skills is less good language skills.
But perhaps the better questions are, even if there were some sort of special enhancement – does that necessarily mean a decrement in literacy. There are visual thinkers who are not Dyslexic. Then one might ask, if we do find strong evidence for excellent visual plus spatial skills in the Dyslexic (AND there are some Dyslexics who do not have good visual/spatial skills) how does that relate to creativity. There are several types of creativity. Visual spatial ability is clearly important in sculpture, balance and proportion in drawing in the visual arts, probably in dancing, maybe music, but what about drama, poetry and literature. There are plenty of good Dyslexic actors and writers. And thinking – Tom West describes the biographies of creative and innovative scientists, who clearly think visually and use metaphors to study scientific processes but have probably never painted any sort of art work. No doubt he would say that there are underlying core visual skills that can be used creatively no matter what field the Dyslexic pursues but if the sine qua non of Dyslexia is visual and/or spatial superiority it is hard to account for the good Dyslexic writers from A.A. Gill to Hans Christian Anderson. Then there is creativity in problem-solving,
from the first ideas to the insight, then selection of the best idea to the innovative “eureka” moment. This creative process process goes on whether you are a chimp working out how to use sticks and boxes to get out- of- reach bananas or a human pondering on an unsolved problem. And it can be applied to Art, the quintessential creative process.
The final question then is, are we mislead by excellence… because many Dyslexics do show wonderful visual and spatial skills, we look for an analogous extra something in the brain to account for that. But perhaps we should be doing the opposite – looking for what inhibits creativity. There is some evidence from brain injury and imaging that the frontal lobe and particular brain cell arrangements are the arbiters of creative ideas, and the extent they are less inhibitory is the extent that an individual can consciously process their creativity. This is an attractive idea since the implication is that if creativity is within, then we can all learn to bring our own creativity out.
However we can still make a special case for Dyslexic creativity – after all if reading is difficult, you have to tolerate ambiguity, suspend judgement until all the data is in (i.e. is it this word or that word, the Dyslexic can’t know until he/she gets to the end of the sentence to see if it makes sense) then when there are enough words decoded to see a pattern the Dyslexic goes beyond the immediate information to hypothesise the meaning. Tolerance of ambiguity as the brain seeks to evoke several perceptions and solutions simultaneously, suspension of reality as constituents of the information are rearranged into a new pattern, the perception of gaps in received wisdom are all elements of creativity and a Dyslexic child has years and years of practice!
The Concept of Neuroaesthetics would posit that the extent to which the brain is differently organised among people, so also should be both Artistic talent and preference. This should include the artistic skills of Dyslexia and Autism, two quite different styles, characterized by a top-down, multi-dimensional overview on the one hand and the bottom up approach, on the other, with it’s basic sensory representations, in detailed and accurate form. Of course creativity is not limited to Art, but this discussion seeks to explain the Dyslexic artist, and summarize the evidence for a long held suspicion that artistic talent emerges out of deficits in the speech and language network. Eventually all brain-based differences might reflect their particular art form and perhaps, one day, we could talk about Dysaesthethics! Actually, we do, but we call the particular form of creativity so remarked on in Dyslexics, Visuo/Spatial ability.
The discovery of the fixed action pattern or instinct, for which Lorenz and Tinbergen got a Nobel Prize is, in artistic appreciation, analogous to Ramachandran’s “peak shift”, experienced when people look at a great work of art. There is good physiological evidence for it. An amusing example Ramachandran gave in the Reith lectures is giving a rat a piece of cheese every time it discriminates a square from a rectangle. Very soon it means that the rat starts looking forward to and liking the rectangle. It’s brain is activated by anticipation of reward. Squares are treated with cold disdain and mean nothing to it. But the longer and narrower the rectangle becomes, the more the rat prefers it. Ramachandran imagines it is thinking, “Wow, the mother of all rectangles” as it runs gleefully towards it. This is because animals and humans do what they are reinforced for.
And what we are reinforced is originally programmed by our evolutionary history. Whatever was good for survival was linked to our reward system that is run by the electro-chemistry of pleasure, the Endorphins and Dopamine. Exciting rats with rectangles and cheese was actually done as an experiment into super-stimuli as a prelude to measuring human response to particular forms in Art with it’s associated activity in the reward pathways of the brain when certain shapes, forms, colours, contours and motion stimulate specific neurons devoted to recognizing them. These are the basis of the “essense” the artist searches for to paint, draw or sculpt, the ideal forms that symbolize the subject. Thus the concept of “peak shift” was born – and refers to the pleasure of recognition we experience when salient features are exaggerated, such as in caricatures. But it goes much further than that. Neuroaesthetists believe that the neurons of the visual system that are specialized to perceive certain features of the visual field respond when a particular piece of Art stimulates their job requirement. So we are hard wired to prefer certain shapes, patterns and contours. For example the rectangles of Mondrian or the colours of Cesanne or Monet. They arouse, disturb and/or inspire the viewer. These neural formations are open to experience and are shaped in childhood. Of course, detractors point to changing perceptions of beauty in Art, the cultural and historical preferences that are evident. But aesthetic theories about Art are fleshed out by a knowledge of the biological basis of Art and the visual system that creates and appreciates it. Our mental processes are reflected in Art from 2-D representational to the symbolic, abstract, non-figurative art of the last century.
Evolution has given animals a drive to seek knowledge about the characteristic properties of the world – the constant, non-changing, permanent properties that we can rely on. But unlike animals human’s have a brain that easily acquires information about the world but just as easily can forget it when we no longer need it. Animals are burdened by instincts that allow them to react appropriately without having to learn – great when you have to recognise danger quickly (an eagle’s wing or a poisonous berry) but counterproductive when the situation changes or some nefarious ethologist comes along and manipulates the environment. This is what an ethologist called Tinbergen found when he was on field trips in the Norwegian fiords. Herring Gull chicks would peck at the red spot on their mothers beak which encouraged the mother-bird to regurgitate food which the chicks ate. So he tried various tricks on the chicks, finding that they would peck at any red “anythings”, be it on a cardboard cut-out or a rag waved across their visual field. Long yellow beak like shapes with 3 red stripes were also arousing to the chicks, which led Ramachandran to say that if herring gulls had an art gallery it would be hung with pictures of red stripes and long yellow shapes! In other words their adaptation to the environment was guided by a template – one that triggered a fixed action pattern every time they encountered their mother. In their bird world that combination of red and shape is sure to be mother. This and other such experiments like replacing some eggs with bigger stone ones which birds tried to hatch in preference to their own real but smaller ones, led to the idea of super-stimuli. The more exaggerated the salient features of the template, the more vigorously the fixed action pattern of neuronal recognition would be called out.
But are humans so entranced by their “whispering withins”? We no longer have to hunt or compete for a safe place to bring up baby so our brains and behaviour are freer from the confines of evolutionary history. What the oysters great, great, great grandmother knew is still useful to the oyster today. But most of human ancestral knowledge is redundant to today’s humans. We have developed a rapidly changing technology to overcome the basic problems of life, eating, sleeping and mating. That means a different sort of information processing – one that can manipulate the environment from inventing the wheel to the internet. Nevertheless we are still using the same physiology to do so. Thus there are few instincts, apart from survival and sex, that humans respond to in this culturally tailored world. But these few are powerful. Consider the effect of the shape of the perfect hip to waist ratio in a bikini clad young woman on the surrounding male population. Or other oestrogen mediated aspects of the female form. Then look at sculptures of fertility goddesses or Barbie dolls; surely super-stimuli analogous to red spots in the bird world? Then look at our media, fashion and advertising industry – where the functional is turned into an art form, from our fig leaf days to Alexander McQueen.
Of all the senses with which we perceive the world vision is the most powerful. Of the entire number of nerve fibres entering the brain from all the senses, one third is from the eyes. Primates have evolved a visual acuity, stereopsis, eye-hand co-ordination and eye control which is ideally suited to an environment possessing colour, detail, depth and panorama. Humans also have a curiosity motivation and also seek a continually changing visual environment, so we change our wallpaper and curtains long before they become threadbare and hang representations of the visual world on our walls. So vision is our most efficient and fastest mechanism for getting knowledge of the world and some kinds of knowledge can only be gained through the eyes. Then we are provided with pathways to use movement to act on that knowledge, .
Although vision is not the only sense it is the one most applicable to the Visual Arts. It has evolved over millions of years, not for the reward of cheese, but for the detection of fruit or edible leaves and moving prey or predators. It provides in a fraction of a second the form, colour, motion, depth, contour, distance, interaction and direction of things important to our survival, in precise spatial and temporal dimensions. It recognises an object from a single view and unites many different views into a unity (without the perceptual confusion of a cubist painting). This implies to many neurobiologists that vision is organised into parallel modular systems and perhaps aesthetics too, so that there are many visual aesthetic senses, each tied to the activity of a specialised visual system; the spatial skill of the artist using multi-dimensions and perspective, the fine detail of still life, the colours of the impressionists, the forms of Mondrian and so on. Different emphasis on one system versus another makes the difference between the Cubists and the Impressionists – or the Dyslexic Artistic, the Autistic Artist or the Attention Deficit Artist.
Talents and Deficits in Dyslexia
This idea of an imbalance in talents and deficits has a long history from Geschwind’s suppositions in the 1960’s that the language areas in the left hemisphere were smaller and less active in Dyslexics, but that the consequence was better developed right hemisphere areas and consequent extra ability in right hemisphere mediated subjects, such as Music, Art, Higher Maths and some sports. He noted still standing correlates most Dyslexics will recognise, such as lefthandedness and autoimmune problems. Thus the problem was characterized in terms of asymmetrical lateralization or rather abnormal symmetry, since the normal pattern for humans is a larger left than right hemisphere because we have developed language. More recently (Chura, et al., 2009) have refined this hypothesis and found that fetal testosterone (of course more available in the male foetus, which explains the higher rate of Dyslexia among males) does cause an asymmetrical and rightward shift via the connections of the corpus callosum that project to the parietal and superior temporal areas. This would be consistent with lack of the normal lateralization of function in the language regions of the left hemisphere (parietal to temporal) with consequent non-language functions being more available.
The development of artistic talents in the midst of language disability as observed in the lives of such creative people like Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein (who didn’t talk until 3 and always had word-retrieval problems) and who were most probably affected with some degree Dyslexia has always been hypothesised to be due to developmental delay in the dominant hemisphere and while not a scientific sample
makes the additional link between creativity, left hemisphere deficits and right hemisphere ability. Certainly Einstein’s brain has been reported to be smaller (at least the neuron to glia ratio) in the language area of the left frontal lobe and the parietal, but the parietal lobes were 15% wider than normal. The delay in the development of left hemisphere functions most likely ‘disinhibits’ the non-dominant parietal lobe to unmask talents, artistic or otherwise, in some such individuals. Diseases affecting the brain such as Aphasia add to the case. Primary Progressive Aphasia is a neurodegenerative condition that slowly erodes speech and language functions. Many of these patients develop new artistic or musical abilities or at least superior visual spatial cognition as their left perisylvian area (above the temporal lobe and dividing the frontal and parietal lobe) and frontotemporal areas degenerate, with attendant slowing of speech, word-retrieval problems and grammatical inaccuracies. Conversely visual artistic skills are often lost when the back of the brain is damaged, the occipital and parietal lobes. These posterior regions are associated with perceptual imagery and integration. This would all suggest that children with literacy problems should be encouraged to develop their hidden talents to full capacity, rather than be subjected to overemphasis on the three ‘rs – the coded symbol operations, we call reading, writing and arithmetic, with the consequence loss of self-esteem and dislike of school learning. A differentiated curriculum with a later start to reading combined with recognition of creative potential and capacity for abstraction would prevent many blighted lives. This was the position of The Arts Dyslexia Trust, a charity originally set up in the U.K. to help Dyslexic Artists discover their talents and now integrated into The British Dyslexia Association.
As both conceptualisation and measuring equipment became more sophisticated specific patterns emerged. After years of designating right brain versus left brain typologies with the right generally held to be the creative repository, we now have a more subtle understanding of the contribution of each to a holistic perception. Whether the detail and discriminative analysis of the left is paid more attention to, than the right’s perception of meaning, depends on the situation and the person. In our evolutionary past, emotionally driven decisions that are elaborated in parts of the right hemisphere and linked to the anterior cingulate, were necessary for survival. Who to trust, approach or avoid were “gut feelings” that allowed for rapid action in a social group but our present environment needs more the ability to analyse, manipulate and record. According to Gilchrist, 2009, Western society exemplifies a cultural shift to the left hemisphere which is bad news for the planet as consumption and use of natural resources with no understanding of their real value, is the consequence. This may be no more than a metaphor but it does parallel differences following right or left hemisphere damage in an individual. Being able to switch or select attention to one or other mode as the situation demands means that practise over time can alter the fluency of these “switching pathways” in the Corpus Callosum. Millions of neurons fire in unison to the most fleeting perception, thought or memory and the old adage, “what fires together, wires together” makes sure that new connections are made as old ones fade away.
A recently discovered phenomenon – the periphery to centre ratio in vision goes a long way to refining the explanation of the Dyslexic learning style. (Schneps et al, 2007) Given the difference in the functional and anatomical characteristics of the visual field, as outlined above, these researchers found that people vary in their ability to make use of the information in the centre or the peripheral field of vision. The peripheral field is organized to combine widely separated features of the visual world and is rapid, so doesn’t need large working memory resources. Thus the demands on working memory are reduced whereas central vision processing requires more working memory. Attention is also differentially drawn on with less attention needed to perform a task using central vision than peripheral vision. Central vision acts like blinkers on a horse, it screens out everything in the peripheral field. Other research has showed that when there are distractions visual search is more efficient when centre vision is used, which may explain the visual overload that Dyslexics experience. Many Dyslexics can read text that is well spaced but not the same text in a version “cluttered” with extraneous figures or letters. The different systems suggest a trade-off between attention and working memory which affects how people perform when doing sequential tasks versus simultaneous, pattern seeking ones. Although a bias to either central or peripheral vision is not necessarily always neurological because it can be affected by lighting, early reading and visuo/motor experience, eye disease or drug use among other possibilities, early researchers showed that Dyslexics tended to be better at identifying letters in their peripheral vision than in their central vision compared to normal readers. Other researchers criticised the original methodology but later research has confirmed a bias to peripheral vision in Dyslexics using kinetic and static perimetry to judge the distance at which Dyslexics could see letters and colours in their peripheral vision. Various measures relating to peripheral vision (impossible figures, contextual cueing) are also cited. Overall the evidence linking Dyslexia to biases in peripheral vision which is related to impairment in reading, built up as did the evidence showing the consequent ability in Dyslexia, to detect anomalies in the peripheral field. Brain imaging studies also show that peripheral bias is related to ability to make visual comparisons in figures including symmetry and similarity judgements while a central bias is more to do with sequential search. Lorusso and Facoetti go further to confirm differences in the visual field between Dyslexic and normal readers but pertaining to an eye movement asymmetry, so that it is only on the right side of the point of fixation that the Dyslexic is biased. This would certainly interfere with efficient visual scanning and the researchers suggest that there is a different type of attention between the “broadening to the right visual field” of the Dyslexics – a more diffused and broader attentional focus due to the interaction of the magnocelluar pathways with the right parietal lobes, which mediate spatial orienting and focusing of attention. Certainly we know that there are interconnections between a part of the parietal lobe and the frontal eyefields because electrical stimulation of that part induces lateral eye movements.
This all dovetails into a long history of research from Margaret Livingstone’s first observations in 1982 to Galaburda’s (1991) findings of abnormalities in the magnocellular pathways that structured the Lateral Geniculate Nucleus, the first analysis of visual information from the retina. Incidentally Galaburda and others also found abnormalities in the part of the LGN that discriminates rapid speech sounds. Although the methods to determine magnocellular involvement have not escaped criticism there now seems to be a general consensus that despite some conflicting ideas and results the consequence of the deficit is a difficulty in perceiving rapid changes in auditory and visual thresholds (Witton, 98) and therefore in retaining sequences of non-meaningful auditory and visual stimuli in short-term working memory (Slaghuis and Ryan, 2006). This would describe the Dyslexic difficulties observed at the coal face, even phonological difficulties, the accepted cause of Dyslexia, which were usually thought of as a separate factor. But the aim of the visual researchers was the same perennial problem of Dyslexia and Art research – the how, why and if of compensating talents in visuospatial domains of the Dyslexic. While a bias to peripheral vision affecting type of attentional resources can explain at least some part of the difference between sequential versus wholistic perceptual styles and the involvement of the right parietal lobe via the inputs from the magnocellular system in an (as yet) speculative way, this is probably not enough to claim it is the basis of creativity, even though spatial ability may be increased.
The Neurology of Visual Arts
The difference between Dyslexic Artists and non-Dyslexic artists starts with the pattern on the retina. Despite it’s small size the centre of the retina is the slave of fine detail while the periphery each side is less “picky”. This is where outline is perceived in a blurred way, but sufficiently detailed enough to recognise the object or person. The centre and periphery are organised for very different needs, a detailed search versus a rapid discrimination of the whole scene, respectively. The cones and rods in the retina are specialised to pick up these two different aspects of the visual field and lead to small and large cells that eventually make up a “what” (ventral) pathway that relays detail and colour from central vision, a “where” (or dorsal) pathway that identifies position, movement and contrast, mostly from peripheral vision and also a “how” pathway that guides visuo/motor skills in a task. The physiological differences in the retina are reflected throughout the visual cortex and brain stem, so detail and outline can be considered as complementary and important visual systems, divvying up their work load before combining the scene into a unified visual percept. Differing levels of strengths and weaknesses in the activity of these pathways are implicated in several syndromes, not only Dyslexia but Williams Syndrome, Capgras syndrome, Alzheimers Disease and more.
This is a metaphorical and grossly simplified account of the complexity of angle, degree and illumination that visual cells respond to, but this chapter is not for physiologists. It serves to underpin reasons for Dyslexics learning style; the visual spatial learner able to grasp complex concepts rapidly and to see patterns in information that enable them to solve problems holistically. Because the steps towards these solutions can’t be easily explained in a verbal or step by step manner, the visuo/spatial Dyslexic is often thought to be guessing or using some strange kind of intuition, if not, downright cheating. The trade-off of course, is sequential, time based information – the Dyslexic’s ability to sum up the data rapidly, deserts them when the information needs logical, repetitive organization.
We look then to functional areas in the brain for more answers. Visual pathways are embedded in a hierarchy of functional areas – each with their own job. Bizzarely, the interpretation of the pattern on the retina is analysed in the back of the head; the visual cortex. Much metabolic activity (blood, oxygen and glucose flow sparking off the electro-chemical signals that carries the information through these specialised cells) happens between the eyes and the visual cortex. And there are many relay stations in the cortex, each with their own independent factory for analysing the visual signal. The length of time it takes to perceive form, colour or motion is different by 60 to 80 milliseconds, with colour being perceived first, then form and then motion. The primary visual area (known as V1) activates first (indeed destruction to this area will cause blindness) but the neural code for colour is not perceived until visual area 4 is active. V3 cells are particularly responsive to form so damage here mes not being able to recognise some objects and in the case of an artist (the well-known J.R., diagnosed with Agnosia) omitting essential details or adding in detail incorrectly in his drawings, despite being able to perspective and shadows. V5 is activated when the person is looking at a moving scene, and Zeki notes the interesting fact that two dominant figures in Kinetic Art (art in which motion is displayed) Jean Tinguely and Alexander Calder, mostly used black and white, thus downplaying their V4 or colour module. Mondrian too, did not emphasie colour beyond using it to make form more “formlike”. He kept his colours pure and finally reduced to red, yellow and blue.
Sandbloom comments that when Mondrain occasionally mixed white and black to a pleasing grey, he had the impression that Mondrain felt that this was a daring compromise! V5 was one of the first areas to show both specialization and differences among people, for instance Dyslexics, who don’t show a normal degree of activation when looking at a moving object. (Eden, G. 95) The cells in V5 respond to motion, particularly if it is going in one direction (like a predator or prey would) but not when colour information is carried on the optic fibes or when the object is stationary. When the V5 area is severely damaged, people become akinetopic. This means they can’t see objects when they move, so crossing the road is dangerous. A car that seemed stationary will, in their perception suddenly run them down. Of course they would not appreciate kinetic art either! A further test of this theory might be to find a kinetic artist who is Dyslexic, which seems unlikely. When people of normal visual perception look at Calder’s mobiles the V5 area springs into activity. Colour vision is a monumental subject and involves the perception of wavelengths of light and the intensity of that light reflected from the surface being viewed. Here, the subtle change of a colour in twilight as compared to bright sunshine is interpreted or a changing form due to background context. Certain cells in V4 have peak sensitivities at different parts of the visible spectrum although there are interesting examples of people who are blind but who can “see” with colour. This suggests wider involvement, at least overlapping some of V1. Similarly the motion pathway traverses some of V1 and V2 with differential damage leading to differential problems in motion detection. But damage to V4 leads to achromatopsia – a disturbance of colour perception, sometimes as severe as not discriminating any colour or not being able to do so consistently, but more often an inability to discriminate one wavelength, short, medium or long from another. V4 is in an interesting part of the brain – the fusiform gyrus, which is activated by forms of a certain kind, one of these kinds being facial recognition. Paintings and drawings of people almost always have the facial features dominating because that carries the most information about the person’s motivations, psychology, stage of life etc. We use the 70 odd facial muscles that alter subtly to convey any state between welcome approach to hostile retreat or aggression. The brain obviously agrees since it devotes so much processing power to the face, as opposed to, say the torso, which is actually bigger. Damage or destruction of this area causes a person not recognise by sight someone they may have lived with all their lives, or to do so by other means. This is known as prosopagnosia and one imagines that painting or appreciating portraits of people would be beyond someone with severe damage here. If the damage also involves the nearby areas it is not just familiar faces that are lost it is all facial expression. It is also one of the areas (with the amygdala) implicated in Autism, which then affects cortical areas mediating social perception.
The time course is also important. The vision pathways sweep through visual areas, in a top-down way, activated by attention. They collect and analyse visual information passing it onto other functional areas for refining. The visual cortex areas referred above are in the Occipital lobe and have the central role in vision but damage to areas outside the visual cortex, the Parietal or Temporal lobes can result in a visual “neglect” where one part of the visual field is simply not perceived and the affected person may draw only half of the object in front of them, usually either the left half or the right half, as if the competing visual stimuli in the opposite visual field was not able to activate awareness.
Damage to early components of visual processing cause different problems to damage later up the hierarchy. Early vision defects in form and colour have been described above, but damage to intermediate vision results in an inability to group visual elements, one of the essential components of artistic expression and the basis of wholistic thinking. The affected person is overwhelmed by all the visual information and cannot organise it meaningfully. Damage to later vision usually means inability to maintain attention to an object or form or the relationship of objects to each other. Or if they can, they find it hard to attach meaning to it. They may describe the shape perfectly but be unable to say it is a golfball, used to play a game with 18 holes in which the ball must be sunk.
Sometimes the consequence of damage or inefficiency in one area may mean extra attention or enhancement of another, such as in the now famous Nadia, who at three years old could draw perfect horses and roosters that most adults couldn’t execute with such precision and detail, despite her profound developmental and learning difficulties. But her visual spatial ability, mediated by the right parietal area was intact so all her attention was concentrated on this.
But what of enhancement? Multiple neural networks with different tuning sensitivities combine fragments and detail into a 3-D form that gives artists the ability to represent multi-dimensional space on a flat piece of paper. Precise timing and coordination is involved here and the ability to adjust activation levels between the left and right hemispheres when novel information has to be processed is essential for efficient information processing. This may be where we find another difference that might answer the question of whether Dyslexics have better spatial ability. After all Einstein’s brain was shown to have enhanced parietal lobes, particularly on the right side of his brain. Much of his history suggests that he would have been classified as Dyslexic had he been at school in today’s education system. Another part of the parietal lobe is important for reading and Hari et al have shown that although left parietal areas are more likely to be involved in Dyslexia, hypofunctionning of one part of the Parietal cortex is associated in the adult male Dyslexics they studied with various kinds of attention problems as well as timing problems that meant the development of phonological awareness, the single most important factor in learning to read, was compromised. Given the clues from Einstein’s brain it is not surprising to find that gifted adolescents (particularly in maths) show increased amplitude in higher brain wave frequencies in the right parietal lobe when doing mental rotation (a test of 3D ability) as well as other visual tests, such as matching circles to arcs.
A small study of 3-D ability, as measured by mental rotation tasks showed that that men had better 3-D skills and that the surface area of the parietal lobe was larger compared to women. This is associated with the higher levels of testosterone in
males which in developmental research is suggested to have a role in earlier development of the right hemisphere than the left. Apart from the fact that more
males are Dyslexic than females this study only emphasizes an expected right parietal lobe size increase in Dyslexia which should correlate with 3-D superiority but to date this has not been done with large enough samples and controls to really answer the question; do Dyslexics have better brain-based spatial ability than non-Dyslexics. It might be easier to answer the implication of this question – i.e. does the hypothesized spatial ability mean that the Dyslexic is more creative than non-Dyslexics. There is an abundant anecdoctal evidence for that at least.
So to turn to the last question – are there better ways of looking for 1) visual/spatial talent and 2) if we can measure it better, is it more likely to be found in a Dyslexic population and 3) even if found, is this the basis of creativity. After all having good spatial ability might only mean you can pack a suitcase more efficiently than most.
While the right parietal lobe helps to integrate multi-sensory perception so that colours, sound, touch and space are integrated in innovative ways the frontal cortex has an inhibitory role – censoring all these bizarre associations like a strict school teacher who demands logical reasoning and none of that fantasy stuff. Actually this is why play is so important to creativity, from early make-believe to brain storming with balloons in boardrooms. Maybe creativity is not in an extra special addition to the brain, maybe it is inhibiting the sensible schoolmarm in our brain. The frontal lobe that corrects, matches to reality, predicts consequences and generally takes the fun out of life with all it’s shoulds and oughts! After all artists, poets and composers have famously used alcohol to release the inhibitions they felt prevented them from giving free reign to their imagination. Narcotics has a well known history from Coleridge to de Quincey and the visual distortions produced by Mescalin are built on by the painter Michaux. The halluncinations of Schizophrenia have been built on most famously by Dada, who was hosptialzied for his psychosis. Another famous sufferer, the poet Holderlin, uses metaphors that don’t follow any conventional logic but can yield a linguistic richness that heightens the expressive capacity of his poetry. Van Gogh’s work during his manic stage of his bi-polar illness, was thought, like the composer Schumann to be his most creative time, and many, many people who suffer from manic-depressive say the same, even if they can’t reach the creative levels of Schumman.
There is yet another card in the brain’s box of creative tricks. It is chemistry. The neural code set off by sensory stimuli is powered by electro-chemistry and there are some dozens of chemicals (called neurotransmitters) waiting to be called on at every junction between the billions of brain cells that react to the things we see, hear, smell, taste or feel. Dopamine is one of the neuro- chemicals in the brain that helps transmit messages. It is a complex system involving different levels of synthesis, uptake and transport between the neurons in various areas of the brain. Disturbed levels can result in many mood, motor and motivation problems, but it is associated with creativity, through it’s interactions in the frontal lobes which control executive functions. Executive control allows for the inhibition of a learned response in favour of one more appropriate given the context. Research has shown that fewer dopamine receptors in the brain, particularly the frontal lobes, correlates with an individual’s preference for and response to novelty, decision-making speed, risk-taking and the extent to which a person is spontaneous and unconstrained by rules and regulations. While not the perfect recipe for creativity this description certainly contains major elements of a creative mind-set and there is an optimum balance between inhibiting or allowing novel associations in thoughts and images to surface. One person’s hallucination can be another’s artistic inspiration!
Interestingly, given the visual research mentioned above that suggests that Dyslexics have biased visual processes, it is interesting to note that multiple dopamine-dependent physiological mechanisms result in an increased signal flow through cone circuits with a diminution of signal flow through rod circuits. Remember the rods project to the magnocellular pathways, that are compromised in many Dyslexics. Dopamine neurons appear early in development, become functional in advance of the onset of vision and begin to die with aging. Some diseases affecting photoreceptor function also diminish day/night differences in dopamine release and turnover. Stordy showed that dark adaptation was poor in Dyslexic adults. A reduction in retinal dopamine, as occurs in Parkinsonian patients, results in reduced visual contrast sensitivity, the very first problem Dyslexic children face in learning to read which is probably a reflection of the more global perception of Dyslexics.
A perfect example of the creative side-effects of frontal lobe inhibition is described by a doctor who was treating a teacher in chemistry and mathematics for frontotemporal dementia. The connections over time, atrophied and disintegrated which allowed the posterior regions to take over. Dr Miller was able to chart the course of the disease using brain imaging and could establish that as the patient lost speech and other abilities her brain reorganised and the right sided connections in the back of the brain which are usually inhibited by the frontal lobes, thickened. This correlated with her sudden ability to use visuo/spatial skills and she gave up science and took up art, drawing and painting from 9am to 5pm in her home studio. She painted a visual representation of Ravel’s Bolero, which was ironic since unbeknown to her, Ravel suffered from the same disease. According to Dr Miller, Ravel composed Bolero as he began showing signs of the disease, making many spelling errors in musical scores and letters. In his opinion Bolero is an exercise in compulsivity, structure and preservation, building without a key change until the 326th bar before accelerating into a collapsing finale. The painting encapsulates this perfectly using rectangles and colours as visual metaphors.
But this is not the only example of patients with FrontalTemporal Damage who as a result of it become more creative than they have ever been, even non-artists. Documented examples are giftedness in landscape design, piano playing, painting and many other creative arts for this combination of preserved parietal and atrophied frontal neural connections.
A powerful demonstration of the benefits of inhibiting top-down perceptions was directly incapacitating part of the left temporal lobe with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, reported by Synder. This can temporarily knock out the part of the brain that controls a function or another part of the body, so there are hundreds of researchers building up a map of what the brain controls with TMS, which is better than trying to estimate loss from the decrement that various injuries and diseases might cause – never a perfect science since there are so many other variables. As one might predict from the above studies the people who were unable to access their left temporal lobe were better able to draw, i.e. use their right temporal lobe as well as not being hampered by inhibitory circuits. Snyder believes that the inhibition of raw sensory data has evolved to allow us to form concepts and make decisions more quickly. But creativity might be just stopping that process in order to gain access to another level of perceptual processing.
So should we be queuing up at the creativity clinic for an operation to disconnect the frontal and temporal lobe inhibitors? Probably best just to strengthen those connections with play, to balance the educational emphasis on the 3 r’s, which develop the left hemisphere language circuits. Play that involves pretend, such as making a horse out of a broom rather than just climbing on a beautifully modelled horse that leaves nothing to the child’s imagination. An old study on Dolphins claimed that when the Dolphin was reinforced for “something different” – not just the same old trick it learned before, it startled the animal researchers with twists, loops and turns they had never seen before, much less taught the Dolphins. If some right hemisphere functions are related to creativity it is at it’s best level of problem-solving when uncertainty and unfamiliarity are present. (Goel, 2007) We rarely have enough information to make a perfect decision and have to operate on a probability quotient aided by subjective imagination and intuitive. Thus the right prefrontal cortex is activated and any damage here gives an inflexibility, detrimental to creativity or even good decisions. Thus there are many interactions between neurochemistry, brain areas and functions, motor skills, memory, attention and personality that need to be taken into account in creativity.
Casanova has an explanation for the extremes of sensory processing versus that characterizes Autism and Dyslexia. It is a minicolumnopathy.
Minicolumns are the smallest processing units in the brain and are just little columns of cortical cells that interact with each other through the white matter of the brain, by oscillations at certain frequencies, or brain waves, higher for short range connections (Beta range) and lower for longer connections (Alpha range). Mini-columns arise in embryonic development, and their width is largely genetically determined. They decrease with age, like most of the good things of life, which tells scientists that these are working units, rather than individual neurons. The images produced by magnetic and diffusion tensor resonance (a method for identifying the white matter fibres that facilitate communication in the brain, including the mini-columns) look rather like those beaded curtains that were hip in the 1960’s, but as time goes on the beads drop off and there are big gaps in the curtain and the aged brain. Disruption of these ensembles is implicated in many types of cognitive and neurological impairment such as in Schizophrenia. (Buldyrev et al) but could also be the basis of synaesthesia. (Mouttron et al 2006)
In autistic brains these mini-columns are even more mini – smaller, thinner and closer together, in order to do a better job of letting raw sensory information flood through the senses and into consciousness. The result of this team work of connections is the inhibition of inhibitory networks. Thus Autistics have an enhanced perceptual functioning across all sensory domains, auditory, olfactory and tactile which can be uncomfortable. Noises are too loud, clothes too scratchy, and the complexity of a person overwhelms their decoding ability, the “intense world hypothesis”. Perception of the world is therefore fragmented, but the attention an autistic is able to bring to bear on one small aspect of the world can enhance memory and give the hyper motivation one needs to excel in a subject. If that subject is wide enough (drawing buildings, memorising calendars etc.) savant skills can emerge, but too narrow interest can lead to compulsive wheel spinning or watching the same video thousands of times. Savants show extroadinary islands of talents in an otherwise incapacitated mind – most notably, in Autism. The artwork of savants such as the now famous Patrick, who as a child could draw buildings with perfect accuracy and precision after a glance, was originally criticised as being too representational – nothing better than a good photograph. But as Patrick grew and painted thousands of pictures his art developed and he now exhibits some abstract paintings, again reinforcing the possibility of attention and practise being able enhance creativity.
In Dyslexia, there are also differences in minicolumns, but the opposite of Autism.
While there are fewer minicolumns they are much wider. The reduction of mini-columns is correlated to the volume of white matter and longer range connections – thus accounting for the less detailed representation and more ability to generalise concepts and perceive patterns multidimensionally. This wider perspective is a trade-off between the speed and detail of the local network and the generality of the Dyslexic pattern with it’s longer range, more global network. This dichotomy is due to the relatively fixed volume of processing units in the cortex so the number and range of connections can be either dense or sparse. The sparser connections will have a longer range but will take longer to connect, but on the other hand fewer connections means a less detailed representation of information. Again we see processing patterns preserved in hierarchial fashion from the very first perception of sensory information to the last concept that is the end result. The longer fibre connectivity in the brains of dyslexics could account for a greater capacity for “seeing” the patterns that are linked to visionary thinking, but also slower development, in school learning. The creative potential is not drawn on until the Dyslexic can take up subjects requiring visuo-spatial skills, such as Architecture, Design, Logistics, Naigation etc.
A small study of 3 scientists showed the smaller mini-column effect (but with some differences to the autistic morphology) which allowed them to focus deeply on their chosen field, so here again we see the same spectrum between global and local, which is echoed throughout all brain levels. .
Now for the final question. If Dyslexics have a superior level of visuo spatial does that make them more creative?
It is the prefrontal cortex which integrates already highly processed information to enable still higher cognitive functions, such as abstract thinking, cognitive flexibility, self-reflexive consciousness. Working memory, temporal integration and sustained, directed attention sub-serve these higher order capacities – all necessary for creativity. The ability to direct attention to the right combination of elements to solve a problem is a prerequisite to creativity since it involves cognitive flexibility. It needs the ability to break conventional or obvious patterns of thinking, to adopt new rules and think abstractly to form new concepts. Novel combinations of stored knowledge come from the temporal, occipital and parietal lobes while the prefrontal elaborates that creatively. Dietrich perceives the prefrontal cortex to be a “search engine” that can pull task-relevant information from long term storage in the temporal, occipital and parietal lobes, temporarily representing it in working memory, while the prefrontal reorders it into new combinations. Attention systems are down=regulated during this process and accounts for the hypofrontality. One could imagine a person who has excellent temporal, occipital and parietally based knowledge but whose prefrontal cortex is less structured for flexibility and cannot therefore use that knowledge creatively. Thus optimum levels of creativity requires both domain specific knowledge AND prefrontal insight capacity.
Letting the Mind Wander;
Hypofrontality is a hallmark of all altered states of conscious – from dreaming, hypnosis, meditation, drug-induced states, endurance running and simple daydreaming (Dietrich, 2004) as well as insight in solving problems (Bhattacharya). Slightly different aspects of the frontal lobes are affected according to the altered state, of course and also the frontal cortex is not a unified whole. In fact there is a prefrontal cortex, itself divided into more specializations. Suffice to say, however that in the creative process attentional resources are used to exert inhibitory control over ideas that don’t seem sensible. This disengages all other cognitive capacities of the prefrontal cortex, accounting for the transient lowered hypofrontality or lowered activity measured. Of course controlled directed creativity has different neurological mechanisms to spontaneous creativity. Oft quoted famous examples in the Sciences (the benzene ring, relativity etc) describe the creative insight occurring in a state of relaxation or dreaming – with little attention to the problem solved. But there are plenty of other examples showing that creativity is the result of deliberate and methodological trial and error problem-solving. Thus there seem to be at least two types of creativity. Nevertheless, spontaneous or directed, attention is a taxing task and cannot be maintained indefinitely. Thus the brain appears to be a parallel processor with much information being processed below conscious perception.
This makes creativity a bit of a hit and miss process. Knowledge that surfaces while the frontal attentional system does not control the content of consciousness, would result in a mental state in which knowing occurs without intentional reasoning. Actually this describes the experience of many Dyslexics who suddenly realize they know something but don’t know how they arrived at the answer or solution.
To summarise. the Dyslexic bias that is already present before the child tries to learn to read, starts with the way sensory information is conducted through the brain from the minicolumns with their longer projections (psychologically distant thoughts spur creativity) to the right shift bias in eye movements, the slower perception of fast speech sounds, mistiming of motor movements, and the faster developmental of spatial skills and right parietal functioning.
But top-down and bottom-up processes work in a feedback loop with other influences, such as attention which can alter the final product. The Dyslexic by virtue of the deficits in language areas, has enhanced several aspects of brain functioning, all of which lead to a more global, multi-dimensional, pattern-seeking perspective that they bring to bear on learning and problem-solving. This domain specific talent level has to be refined and manipulated by the higher cognitive functions contained in the pre- frontal lobes, to produce a creativity in Art and Science or in thinking and reasoning’
Dyslexics who have had years of trying to read accurately have developed the prefrontal elements that enable them to make use of their visuo spatial adaptations.
In weighing up the evidence to decide which word makes sense of the sentence the Dyslexic (who often needs to read each sentence several times to get an accurate meaning) has developed par excellence, cognitive flexibility – the final finishing touch in developing their creativity. The answer to our question – are Dyslexics more creative – is yes, in that wider mini-columns are the basis of visuo/spatial ability but they also need cognitive flexibility to make creative use of that visuo/spatial ability. The extent that they persevere in reading, tolerate ambiguity, suspend judgement until the final word is read, may be the extent to which they develop their prefrontal cortex creativity. Every cloud has a silver lining!
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