ARTISTRY AFTER BRAIN DAMAGE
THROUGHOUT my student days I was innocent of knowledge about (and, for that matter, devoid of interest in) the human brain. While not openly sympathetic to a "black-box approach," in which the nervous system is deliberately excluded from consideration, I felt no need to discover the "brain correlates" of the artistic behaviors I was trying to understand. In fact, when I was not conducting psychological experiments with children, I was content to talk with artists and ponder the way their developed skills produced fluent and highly original works of art.
But soon enough, I encountered an impasse, owing to one single fact: in competent artists, skills unfold with such fluency that it is extremely difficult for a nonprofessional to figure out the skills involved in artistry and how they are deployed. It was while confronting this dilemma that I chanced to hear the noted neurologist, Norman Geschwind, deliver a talk on the left and right hemispheres of the brain. At a time when laterality had not yet become the rage, Geschwind described several fascinating associations and dissociations that can be observed in brain-damaged patients. There is the paradoxical sparing of a capacity in the presence of widespread damage to the nervous system--for example, when an individual who seems unable to acquire any new information mysteriously retains the capacity to learn complex motor patterns. There is the equally startling devastation of a single ability in the repertoire of an otherwise competent individual, as when, for example, an individual who retains the ability to write, speak, and even to read numbers loses the ability to read letters and words.