Romano Lecture explores Parkinson’s and creativity
April 7, 2014Tweet
What is the relationship between Parkinson’s disease and creativity, and how have views on this relationship changed throughout time? Dorothy Porter offered her perspective in the Mario and Antoinette Romano Lecture on April 2.
“My purpose is to investigate what I perceive as two historical cultures which have developed around the relationship between Parkinson’s and creativity,” said Porter, professor of the history of health sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, who spoke on “Creative Disability and the Shaking Palsy: Approaching a History of Parkinson’s disease.”
She began her lecture by discussing the work of noted neurologist Oliver Sacks, who administered the drug L-Dopa to catatonic victims of a 1924 epidemic of encephalitis lethargicia. Sacks’ book recounting this experience, Awakenings, was turned into a feature-length movie starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
“Oliver Sacks turned Parkinson’s disease, if it’s possible, into a Hollywood blockbuster” Porter said.
In 2007, Sacks wrote “a more optimistic book” about neurodegenerative diseases called Musicophilia, in which he argued that frontal lobe lesions in the brain associated with dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease can disinhibit an evolutionary developed creative inhibition in the brain.
“What his argument was in that book is that some neurodegenerative diseases can, in fact, ‘let the music out,’” Porter said.
Porter argued that two cultural interpretations between creativity and Parkinson’s disease have developed over time. The first is a neuro-psycho-biological discourse with the power to affect human conscious and somatic experience through pharmacological manipulation to the edicts of its own knowledge. She contrasted this with a development of patient narratives about the relationship between Parkinson’s disease and creativity.
“There is another discourse which has become immensely powerful around Parkinson’s disease and creativity, especially with the impact of the genomic revolution,” Porter said.
She discussed pivotal moments in the discovery of the nigrastriatal pathway, one of the four dopamine pathways in the brain involved in movement. A critical moment, she said, came when Swedish scientist Arvid Carlsson demonstrated the biological function of dopamine as a neurotransmitter in the brain – and for the next 40 years, she said, this nigrastriatal dopamine deficiency paradigm wasn’t challenged or further researched.
This paradigm was, however, dramatically affected by the development of the tri-dimensional-psychobiological temperament system in the 1980s and ’90s by famed psychiatrist and geneticist Claude Robert Cloninger. He developed this system as a new methodological and epistemological framework in which genomic analysis could be correlated with personality and cognitive analysis, and codified it in the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI), which was used throughout the 1990s to identify traits in Parkinson’s and to predict its onset.
Porter discussed the idea of a distinct Parkinson’s personality and cited the work of Carl Dudley Camp, a clinical professor of neurology at the University of Michigan during the early 1900s, who saw Parkinson’s as “a badge of respectable endeavor.”
“One hundred years of psychobiology have subsequently characterized Parkinson’s patients as possessing distinctive personality traits of industriousness, seriousness and inflexibility,” said Porter. She added that she wants to “disrupt the biopsychological characterization of the Parkinson’s patient, of the predetermined Parkinson’s personality.”
Porter argued that the neuro-psycho-bio narrative on Parkinson’s and creativity dramatically contrasts with a much longer established discourse by patients about their transformative experiences, leading to creative pathways in which to experience what it means to be human.
“For Parkinson’s patients, engaging in creative artistic work, the essentialist concepts of disability disappear into limitless opportunities for creating not out of being, but out of necessity for becoming human,” said Porter.
Concluding her lecture, Porter said she wants to disrupt the conversation that identifies Parkinson’s from a clinical and reductionist respect and fails to take into account what it means to the patients in terms of their experience of the disease.
“Let’s try and find a new language to discuss these sets of interactions, what it means to try and control the disease clinically and what it means to patients to experience their disease as an opportunity,” Porter said.