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In the past, there has been an assumption that artists who suffer neurological damage will never be able to produce their art in quite the same way again. And though this largely appears to be true, it’s not necessarily a change for the worse, according to Anjan Chatterjee ’80.

“There are enough instances where people’s art is judged to be better than it was before,” says Chatterjee, a professor and physician at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. “Sometimes these are controversial claims, but that makes them all the more interesting to look into.”

Chatterjee’s current research in the neurology of visual art focuses on artists with neuropsychological deficits, and explores how these artists’ natural talents allow them to express the effects of their damage in an aesthetically eloquent manner. “In most aspects of our cognitive systems, whether it’s memory or language or perception, brain damage makes thing worse,” he says. “This kind of paradoxical facilitation speaks to the complexity of how we produce art; when certain parts of the brain are damaged, other parts take over in interesting ways.”

In articles for the journals Neuropsychologia (Vol. 42, 2004) and International Review of Neurobiology (Vol. 74, 2006), Chatterjee uses observational data and case studies to support his contention that brain damage does not always destroy an artist’s aptitude, and in some cases even enhances it. Examples of these case studies include a Bulgarian painter whose art became richer and more colorful after a left hemisphere stroke; an Italian artist with epilepsy who, when in his 30s, could suddenly create vivid renderings of a town he had not seen since childhood; the famed Willem de Kooning, whose post-Alzheimer’s art was often hailed by critics as lyrical and sensual; and Katherine Sherwood, a professor at Berkeley who suffered a left hemisphere hemorrhagic stroke and trained herself to paint with her left hand—a new style that has led to a flourishing career.

As yet, there is no definitive answer as to why this occurs in some artists and not in others. Chatterjee says there are possible explanations; in the case of the Italian painter with epilepsy, his neurological disease may have produced obsessive-compulsive characteristics. “People who have these characteristics and express themselves through visual art tend to use the same themes over and over,” says Chatterjee. In other instances, such as the Bulgarian painter and Katherine Sherwood, the use of unusual combinations of form and color may be the result of relying on the right hemisphere to do what had been done by the left side.

“The idea in the general public, that art happens only in the right hemisphere, is not correct,” says Chatterjee. “It’s coordinated in different parts of the brain.”

Getting a better sense of the principles behind the effects of brain injury on art will have lasting implications for creative patients with neurological damage. “We can envision it being used in therapy,” says Chatterjee. “Often, with people who have brain damage and strokes, their lives become very restricted. One possibility is to encourage them to produce their art in a way they’d find enjoyable, improving their quality of life.”

To go forward with this research, Chatterjee wants to look beyond data based merely on case studies and observations. “We’re hoping to make this meet the minimal criteria of science,” he says. “There have to be ways to measure information and test hypotheses. Most of our efforts now are geared towards creating instruments to quantify various attributes of people’s art.” He also hopes to compare the artwork of artists both before and after their brain injuries in order to make more precise claims about which aspects of the art have changed, and if critics and appreciators approve of the end result. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the biologic underpinnings of artistic creativity and production.

Chatterjee and fellow scientists could run into some complications when trying to secure artists’ participation in these studies; many are reluctant to dismiss their post-injury art as a neurological phenomenon. “People feel there’s something deeply wrong about reducing art into quantifiable parameters,” Chatterjee acknowledges. “But in the world in which I live, everything we do is a brain phenomenon. Whatever you do is generated by what’s happening in your brain. It’s more complicated when someone’s art gets better after brain damage; do you ascribe that to the damage, or does that negate individual creativity?”

Not all artists are resistant; San Francisco painter Katherine Sherwood, for example, is interested in learning more about why her brain damage has changed the way she thinks about and produces art. (Chatterjee will be writing an introductory essay for the catalog of an upcoming solo show of Sherwood’s work at the National Academy of Sciences.) Others, such as one of Chatterjee’s patients—a hobbyist who concentrates on watercolors—are dismayed. “After her brain damage, her ability to produce images felt freer and easier,” he says. “She’s a bit distressed—she’s been working on this for over 10 years, and it took a brain injury to make it easier.”

There may be a concern that patients’ work will have a greater market value simply because it was created by someone with neurological damage. “In the early part of the 20th century, people were very interested in the artwork of those with mental illness,” says Chatterjee. “It was initially called ‘outsiders’ art.” He refers to a Philadelphia-born artist, William Utermohlen, who, after developing Alzheimer’s, painted a series of self-portraits that received more attention than anything he had created earlier in his career. “And he’d been painting all his life.”

Chatterjee cautions that despite the aforementioned evidence to the contrary, the fact that brain injury may alter an artist’s style doesn’t always mean that the new style will work in the artist’s favor. “For example, you may have painted in a realistic fashion all your life, but after brain damage you can only paint in an expressionist manner,” he says. “Just because the style changes doesn’t mean you’ll be good at that style. We have to be sensitive to that fact, and that’s where the role of the individual, independent of the brain damage, comes in.”

These studies appeal to Chatterjee on both a personal level—he himself is an artist, a photographer who also took a number of sculpture and drawing classes while at Haverford—and on a professional level, as it relates to his other areas of research. “I’m looking at people’s responses to various notions of beauty, assessing which parts of the brain are active under what conditions,” he says. “And much of my work focuses on how we direct attention across space—why do certain things draw your attention? How does art fit in?” He’s also exploring how the perceptual experience of viewing art can become an emotional experience as well.

“I just wrote a grant proposal to look at people with depression who have a symptom called anhedonia—they don’t get pleasure from things other people do,” says Chatterjee, who also serves on the editorial board of the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts. “Their appreciation of art may be different—perhaps they see the same thing other people are seeing, but they don’t have the same kind of emotional response; their emotional blunting affects their perception. We can use these tools to better understand other disorders.”

— Brenna McBride

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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