The brain that changes itself

Inborn talent? That’s just another take on that old lie, determinism.
Violinist. Painted so long ago I remember nothing about it.

If you’ve taken one of my classes or workshops, you know that I’m not a big believer in inborn talent. We are all born with great potential in many different areas. In some instances, that potential is magnified and a prodigy appears. In too many other cases, that potential withers from lack of nurture.

I don’t believe we’re born to be artists or mathematicians, any more than I believe we’re born to be depressives or alcoholics. That’s just a variation on that hoary old lie, Determinism. It’s not nice whether it shows up as eugenics, racism, gender roles or Predestination.
Of course, there are instances where the brain is damaged, either before birth or by accident or illness. But even this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of creativity. I know a guitarist who suffered a traumatic brain injury. He works hard to learn his parts, but he plays them with beautiful understated good taste, sensitivity and skill.
Creation, by Carol L. Douglas
One of my favorite books is Dr. Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. Doidge is a Columbia-trained psychiatrist and on the faculty at University of Toronto, so he’s not talking through his hat when he claims that the human brain is “a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age.”
One of the ways the human brain adapts to injury or aging is by encouraging healthy brain regions to compensate for damaged areas. For example, music confers benefits to dementia patients. Conversely, damage in one neural pathway may hurt others. There is a linkbetween deafness and dementia. 
In some circumstances, healthy human brains cross-talk as a matter of course. This is a phenomenon called synesthesia, which is when stimulating one brain pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
In the most common form, letters are mentally associated with colors, but colors can be associated with sounds, or mathematical sequences can be seen spatially. More rarely, there is overlap between sensory stimulus and emotional states.
We know very little about what causes this. Heck, we didn’t even admit it was real until a few years ago. However, a 2014 paper suggests a linkbetween synesthetia and higher levels of creativity. 
Dancer, by Carol L. Douglas
Both synthesia and creativity work by creating or discovering links between different spheres, noted the authors, Lawrence E Marksand Catherine M. Mulvennad. These take the form of sensory links in synesthesia and conceptual links in metaphor. The sensory links are typically fixed and rigid. The conceptual links are mutable, however.
People with synesthesia show a greater capacity for creative cognition. This may be because of a link between synesthesia and neural hyperconnectivity, which plays a role in creativity.
Which came first, the synesthesia or the creativity? If Dr. Doidge is right, we all have the potential for running more than one process on the same neural tracks. I’m synesthetic myself, and I think they both grew up together in my brain.

Beauty and the human brain

Polka Dot Shirt, mixed media on canvas, by Erich H. (Autism Services of WNY)
A recent report suggests* a link between autism and synesthesia,  a neurological condition in which stimulating one sensory or cognitive pathway triggers involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
The report is rudimentary in the extreme, being based on an online survey. This is no surprise, since the whole question of synesthesia is largely unstudied. That’s a pity, since managing neuroplasticity has so much potential for some of the most intractable diseases we humans face. Who knows whether the cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, or Huntington’s might be found in the ability of the brain to work along duplicate pathways?
Guitar, acrylic on canvas, by Erich H. (Autism Services of WNY)
When I read this story, my thoughts immediately went to a young man I’ve known since before he was in short pants. It’s no surprise that Erich can draw and paint beautifully. I’ve known his mother since she was in short pants and she’s a very talented woman. 
Batman and Tops with Hearts and Candy Bars, mixed media on paper,  by Erich H. (Autism Services of WNY)
I asked Erich’s mother if she thought synesthesia contributed to Erich’s painting ability, and she answered, “Possibly. He does have perfect pitch, too.”
Yellow Ceiling Fan on Black, mixed media on canvas, by Erich H. (Autism Services of WNY)
Erich is hardly alone in being a talented artist with autism. For the past decade, Autism Services of Western New York has run an art program for its clients. Not only are they exposed to various materials and resources, but their work is shown regularly in commercial and public venues across the greater Buffalo area.
If you’re interested in seeing their clients’ work in a real-world setting, check here for a list of venues. If you’re on Facebook, like Autism Services of Western New York on your news feed. 

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!