Artist Brains…

One of the ideas of God I got in American Baptist Sunday school that I loved as a kid was that God made — carved? — each one of us individually for a purpose. However and whatever we were, we were meant to be that way and, therefore, worthy of respect as God’s handiwork. That is a beautiful notion and I’m not sure I ever fully let go of it.

Over the last few days I’ve read some interesting articles — one came my way accidentally and the other I found more-or-less on purpose. The first dealt with the role of gossip in human interaction; the second dealt with research into the “artist brain.” The two articles — actually more than two — shared as a theme the idea of belonging.

I don’t like gossip. I’ve seen it destroy organizations. It destroyed the artists coop to which I belonged soon after I first moved here. The article explained that gossip is not all bad because it’s a way humans have of establishing identity, belonging and territory, in other words, establishing who is “us” and Who is “them,” a way of reaffirming bonds. Somehow that all seems obvious. I read the article not so much out of a feeling that I needed to learn about gossip, but because it showed up on Social Media and I’d just attended a tea party where gossip was a primary feature. I understood what was happening (the “meta” message?). We hadn’t seen each other in a month or so and were catching up, not only on the news, but on “us.” As I read about gossip I thought, also, about social media. It’s brought the whole gossip mode of human interaction to a new place, given it a new importance, and it threatens the stability of this nation.

The other article(s) I sought brought me some pretty disturbing information/speculation (not sure). I began thinking about “Rainbow Girls in Wheatland, Wyoming, 1957” more than a year ago. Maybe even seven years ago when the memory wafted through my mind and captured my imagination. I wrote about it here “Going to Billings with Hank, Mom and Kirk.” In that post I wrote about the wonder of seeing Aida performed in Verona. The scene in Wyoming has been like a friendly splinter in my mind.

Anyway, the articles were about research done into the minds of visual artists. Apparently science has found differences between artist’s brains and, uh, other? normal? brains. Two basic differences came out in the articles. First, and most disturbing, is a chemical similarity between the brains of visual artists and schizophrenics. Second, there is a structural difference:

In a study published last year in NeuroImage, researchers looked at the brains of art students and non-artists using a brain scan method called voxel-based morphometry. This type of scan helps scientists look at specific brain structures, and the images from the brain scan look like this:


When the brains of the individuals in the two groups were compared, it was discovered that artists have significantly more neural matter in the parts of their brain responsible for visual imagery and fine motor control. Specifically, those who were better at drawing had more grey matter in the precuneus of the parietal lobe. Unsurprisingly, this region has been linked to creativity and being able to manipulate, combine, and deconstruct visual images. There were additional increases in grey and white matter in the cerebellum and the supplementary motor area, both involved in fine motor control.


There’s also the old song about being an artist and being mentally ill. I read just one article (didn’t want to pursue it) on this topic saying that new “discoveries” connect the brain chemistry of artists to the brain chemistry of schizophrenics. The voices told me not to go into this too much 😉

The popular perception of creative thinkers and artists is that they often also have mental disorders—the likes of Vincent van Gogh or Sylvia Plath suggest that creativity and madness go hand in hand. Past research has tentatively confirmed a correlation; scientific surveys have found that highly creative people are more likely to have mental illness in their family, indicating a genetic link. Now a study from Sweden is the first to suggest a biological mechanism: highly creative healthy people and people with schizophrenia have certain brain chemistry features in common.”


The title of this article is, “The Mad Artist’s Brain: The Connection between Creativity and Mental Illness.” Well that sets it up…

It’s been “proven” that artists have higher rates of mental illness than do “normal” people, but is it a result of their brains or is it a result of the objective challenges artists face in society that non-artists don’t? Is it the result of the way non-artists respond to artists which, I can tell you, is a little strange or, worse, the way artists often respond to OTHER artists? No amount of friendly gossip in the world is going to make artists “belong” with all of these objective obstacles.

I laughed to myself then I thought, “What is it that makes people curious about this at all? Do we smell weird or what? Why is it even interesting? Why am I even READING about it?” At that I took my “extra” gray matter into the kitchen and warmed up left-over enchiladas.

We might not fit in even with excellent gossiping skills; we might smell weird or something, but damn. Without visually creative people I think our world would be greatly diminished. Being an artist is not a pathology, however much science might like to study “it.” Among all the bizarre “determinations” of “science,” they’ve also determined that we can’t help it, which is good. First, our “weirdness” gives the “normals” something to worry about and to keep them busy, and we give the world new ideas, paintings, sculptures, innovations, and visions.

14 thoughts on “Artist Brains…

  1. Interesting study! I wonder if the brain structural differences were there first or if being an artist resulted in it developing more that way. The plasticity in brains is incredible I would lean to thinking it is the latter. I would also love if they did these studies on other jobs such as a writer.

    • The articles that focus on physical brain differences discuss that question — chicken or the egg? — and pretty much conclude that the brain differences were there at birth. It naturally makes the point that the nature vs nurture thing is a question, but in my case, there was no nurture. I think that will remain an open question since the nurture element is pretty subjective. My guess is there are studies out there about what makes people writers — I’m both, but nurture was there for me as a writer. For being a visual artist, my mom’s whole stance was, “In this house art is four letter word.” And worse. There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle. It’s all very interesting but I could really do without the labels. 🙂

  2. Hmmm. Much food for thought (and now I’m thinking I want enchiladas tomorrow)! If the artists are “crazy” then lets celebrate crazy and vilify “normal”! You make a very good point that perhaps some of the increase in illness might be related to the difficulties that artists face surviving in society. If artists could earn a daily wage then just think of how many masterpieces could be produced!!

    • Yes. I don’t think the income thing is ever going to happen. 🙂 I had to wait my WHOLE LIFE to be a full-time artist. Luckily I had gainful employment I loved, but I could never really succeed (except in the classroom which is the important place) because I was “different” and I was often told that I was.

  3. I was just reading someone else’s post about his heart. The heart of an endurance athlete is often “overdeveloped” in a way similar to a pathological condition known as “left ventricular hypertrophy”, meaning the main pumping chamber is bigger than “normal”. Maybe all forms of “abnormality” look like that – with pathology and greatness not so far apart.

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