In his biweekly online newsletter, The Painters Keys, artist Robert Genn made some interesting points about the relationship between art and the aging brain. Here’s an excerpt. For more you can go to the link at the bottom of this post.

Creativity and the onset of dementia have recently prompted a great deal of study and speculation. Dr. Luis Fornazzari of the Memory Clinic at the  Division of Neurology, St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto, in a  paper published on Tuesday, stated, “Art should be understood as a cognitive function with its own neural networks.”

His findings include the discovery that painters, musicians, and writers who develop brain disorders may continue to be competent in their art for some time after losing other faculties. Our main brain, it seems, is vulnerable to attack just as a  computer hard drive is to viruses, while our art brain is like an outboard memory card–somewhat protected or at least delayed in its potential corruption.

The main characteristic of all artists seems to be that skills, techniques, and methodologies need to be well learned or self-taught. In other words, ingrained skills persist and can be the last to go.

All  this is based on new understandings of Brain Reserve Capacity–neuroscientists call it “BRC.” The building of extra capacity,  which largely happens in the early and middle years, is a clear catalyst to a longer, more contributive, and more fulfilling life. Many researchers such  as Konrad Mauer and Bruce Miller are now suggesting that there is a  “tremendous potential for preservation of brain functions induced by the visual arts.” That being said, other effective methods that build BRC  are education, occupational attainment, bilingualism, physical activity,  proper diet, absence of addictive drugs including alcohol and tobacco, and social networking.

Alzheimers & arts

Music brings dramatic results to patients who have Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other memory disorders. Patients who have not spoken a coherent sentence in weeks (according to the staff) may be able to sing along with entire songs.  Patients who have a flat affect and sit slumped in their wheelchairs become animated and start moving. And sometimes, singing these songs actually triggers something in the mind that makes it suddenly possible for the patient to remember and speak of a past experience.

Oliver Sacks, noted author and expert neurologist, explains: a stroke or dementia can cause aphasia, the inability to use or comprehend words. But the ability to sing words is rarely affected, even if an aphasic cannot speak them. Being reminded in this way of words and grammatical constructions they have forgotten may help them start to regain old neural pathways for accessing language. Music then becomes a crucial first step in a sequence followed by spontaneous improvement and speech therapy.