Parkinson’s and Creativity

By Northwest Parkinson’s Blogger Peter Dunlap-Shohl

How can Parkinson’s change your life? More ways than you care to count. One of the least expected: PD, or more exactly, treatments for it, can  supercharge your creativity, fueling a creative bender that can be delightful or disruptive.

I first encountered formal interest in this phenomenon about a decade ago in a report on a paper by a neurologist who noticed her patients were giving her thank-you gifts that they made themselves. Paintings and other art objects were coming her way in numbers that seemed higher than one would expect. In addition, other patients were writing poetry, novels and screenplays. Intrigued, the doctor administered a creativity test to a sample of people and came up with a surprising finding. Her study did indeed show an increase in the creativity levels of a number of patients after their Parkinson’s diagnosis, but only the ones who were on dopaminergic medications. A subsequent study of PD patients  from 2012 reported 20%  experienced an increasing desire  for creative endeavors such as making art. Another study of creative patients found artistic work either started  or was significantly boosted by the introduction of dopamine replacement therapy (DRT.)

Those DRT medications are the treatments like levodopa which the brain can convert to dopamine, or the dopamine agonists like Requip or Mirapex, that act (sort of) like dopamine in the brain. This raises interesting questions involving dopamine and creativity, but another role of dopamine is also involved here, dopamine and pleasure.

Because dopamine is involved with pleasure, therapies that involve tinkering with the dopamine levels in the brain can lead to obsessive behaviors like sex addiction, gambling addiction or even painting addiction. One study participant recounted how, on a high dose of Mirapex her painting activity rose markedly, accompanied by “nocturnal hyperactivity and psychosis.” Dopaminergic addiction followed, along with graduation to painting addiction marked by compulsive buying of art supplies and painting.on any available surface, even her washing machine. Her lifestyle changed too, her home became a gathering place for artist friends to meet and party. This upset her family and her personal and social equilibrium. Eventually, following Deep Brain Stimulation surgery she was able to reduce her medications, and returned to a still creatively rich but less hyper-driven artistic life. She mostly sculpts now, afraid to pick up a brush lest it reawaken her painting addiction.

My own experience with a surge of creativity was gentler and more rewarding. I went on a creative streak that lasts to this day. I began blogging at work, started doing my editorial cartoons in color, started doing animated cartoons, set up and maintained two personal blogs, and eventually wrote and illustrated a book-length comic about Parkinson’s  Disease.

What can we make of this seeming gift from Parkinson’s disease? Even if your creativity doesn’t approach the level of addiction, like anything with PD, there are complications. If you are a singer, PD affects your voice, accuracy of pitch, and volume. If you are a dancer, PD affects your muscle tone and balance, if you are a visual artist, PD affects your fine motor control and even your eyes. You may be more creative, but your ability to express that creativity is going to be hampered by Parkinson’s Disease. PD giveth and PD taketh away.

NW Parkinson’s Blogger Peter Dunlap-Shohl