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Can epilepsy provoke creative awareness?

I have often wondered whether epilepsy (or any neurological health condition for that matter) can encourage creativity and spark a sense of imagination. Can it make a former philistine adore the arts and literature, or allow a person with no artistic awareness whatsoever to suddenly sketch to the point of addiction? I have thought about this as a result of having a mild form of the condition myself (Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy) since the age of 15, before going on to study Fine Art at university. You see, I love to paint, especially in the abstract expressionist style. Taking regular medication (which thankfully keeps everything under control) I sometimes wonder whether a seizure sparked anything in me all those years ago. I drew a lot as a child, wrote stories and even liked poetry. But I didn’t look at Franz Kline and go ‘wow, I wanna paint like him’, which, nowadays, I do. When I make a painting I don’t plan ahead. My ideas just randomly pop out of my brain, like burnt bread popping out of a toaster. People have asked me were I get the ideas for paintings from. And most of the time I don’t really have an appropriate answer. I think quickly and spontaneously as I paint. Just don’t ask me were the ideas come from…

There are many artists and writers, past and present, who suffered (or were believed to have suffered) from epilepsy and numerous other mental afflictions. A few examples would include Lewis Carroll, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Inness, even the legendary Michelangelo Buonarroti. Nineteenth century artist and writer Edward Lear suffered from grand-mal seizures from the young age of six. As a result he suffered excruciating guilt throughout his life, as attitudes towards epilepsy in the Victorian era were shamefully ostracising. In his journals it emerged he was luckily able to sense the onset of a seizure (otherwise known as an ‘aura’) so he had sufficient time to remove himself from the view of the judgemental and, more often than not, prejudiced public.

1862ca-a-book-of-nonsense--edward-lear-001But did Lear’s epilepsy provoke creative genius? Could those awful, gut-wrenching seizures have made something ‘click’ within the creative but hidden depths of his brain? Personally, I believe that, well, yes they did. Or at least they had a strong influence and effect on his future writing and artistic practice. He was famous for writing literary nonsense, using absurd elements to defy and ridicule logical rationale and conventional language. To write such literature you need a creative and imaginative mind, not to mention a sense of humourous, uncanny wit. And the mind behind this enigmatic and defiant literature could very well be a result of severe afflictions to the functioning order of the brain.

Post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, who was believed to have had some form of epilepsy, as well as bipolar disorder and clinical depression (more than 150 psychiatrists have attempted to decipher this, with around 30 diagnoses having been made over the years) made subliminal paintings that captured the very essence of his artistic nature, jumping upon the bandwagon of theories that portrayed him as a man of harrowing mental illness. Thought to have had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Van Gogh mixed sand with his paint, making rough textures that have consistently captured the attention of the modern world, not to mention of course the spectacular imagery. Perhaps his most famous painting, ‘Starry Night,’ acts as a good example in reference to epilepsy and mental disorder. The colours (or lack thereof) are dark, monolithic and serious in tone. But the whirlpools (which do bring to mind Lord Rosse’s ‘Whirlpool Galaxy’, preceding ‘Starry Night’ by 44 years) are what leaps the supposition of Van Gogh’s artistry being an infliction of epilepsy. From my perspective these indicate a playing-up of the mind, a sort of representation of the electrical fireworks that seized his brain. According to Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the Temporal Lobe Epilepsy provoked “a collapse of thought, perception, reason, and emotion” which by any means could have sparked a personal need to, as I see it, paint to the heart’s desire.

The sudden and abnormal burst of electrical activity in the brain that causes a seizure could have a miraculous effect on the organ’s artistic functions, according to Jim Chambliss, author of ‘Can Epilepsy Spark Creativity’. He believes there is a very strong probability that epilepsy encourages an artistic mind, especially after he developed Temporolimbic Epilepsy after suffering an accident. It is thereafter that he discovered a talent for sculpting, and began extensive research into the possibility of creativity being sparked by said neurological condition. The hypothesis is that a seizure can, and I quote, “influence artistic creativity when misfiring of electrical impulses leads to altered functioning and hyperstimulation of areas of the brain that control the functions that most influence the creative process”.

If you ask me, that hypothesis almost sums up my entire thoughts on the subject. And if it is true that epilepsy does provoke a sense of creative awareness, then that might have just explained all my abstract painting.

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