Finding Your Inner Genius

Would I be able to identify raw details more clearly — or reproduce the photos he showed me with more accurate drawings — when it was over?

Synder says about 40 percent of his volunteer subjects show pronounced effects. "They say they're much more aware of the details around the room. One person said that he had never before wanted to write, but suddenly he now wants to write compositions. In other words he was able to see the world in a kind of descriptive way."

I didn't become a da Vinci, but I did produce typical and interesting results. When I drew a dog before the experiment, I used the same techniques I learned in elementary school — assembling patterns of circles and ovals to represent the body and its parts.

After the pulses, I drew a dog in free-form style, imposing a better sense of motion on the figure. I started by drawing tufts on its back and tail — not the outline patterns I had been taught — but I was unaware until I looked at the videotapes that I had changed my method.

When Snyder published the results of his long-term experiments (in the Journal of Integrative Neuroscience), he reported that that was how many of the participants had responded. Compared to the "before" drawings, the "after" drawings — following 10, and then 15 minutes of pulses — showed stylistic changes that sometimes were radically different.

"I think this is the best indicator of how people break away from their mindset," Snyder said.

Skeptics say this could simply be the result of practice or repetition — even with savants. Snyder cites case studies where sudden brain damage has resulted in unusual change.

"There's another person we've worked with who got hit on the head with a baseball when he was 9 years old," Snyder said. "He became very quickly … a calendar calculator." (He was instantly able to associate days of the week with specific calendar dates). "How can this be due to practice?"

Snyder also cites a landmark study by Bruce Miller, now of the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Miller found that some patients began having extraordinary creative impulses even as some areas of their brains were deteriorating because of disease. The areas that showed damage in brain scans controlled language and behavior — where we label things. And as those areas were disabled, the creative side of the brain — including the frontal temporal lobes — gained more influence.

The condition is called frontotemporal dementia, and through Miller, I met one of its victims, Jack Friedman. As the damage to his brain progressed, Friedman changed from a conservative businessman to a free-spirited artist whose whimsical works sold for hundred of dollars each at California galleries. At the same time, his ability to function in everyday life declined drastically.

Freeing Artistic Talents?

Another journalist who participated in Snyder's experiment reported showing much more improvement than I did in his drawing skills. Describing his progress in drawing cats, New York Times reporter Lawrence Osborne wrote, "I could hardly recognize them as my own drawings?Somehow I had gone from an incompetent draftsman to a very impressive artist."

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