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Neurology of the arts: painting, music, literature
  1. B L Miller

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    Edited by F Clifford Rose. Published by Imperial College Press, 2004, £65.00 (hardback), pp 432. ISBN 1-86094-368-3

    Neurology of the arts: painting, music, literature is a multi-authored book that explores the intersection between neurology and the arts. The topics in the book are wide ranging, moving from discussions of Dostoyevsky and epilepsy, to amusia, back to Samuel Johnson and Mozart’s movement disorders. Neurology is the underlying glue that binds the book. The chapters are really quite diverse and touch on the use of literature or painting to portray neurological disorders, include descriptions of the neurological conditions of famous artists, writers or musicians, or delineate the neurological basis for music and painting. Many of the authors have a background in neurology or neuroscience, but there are fascinating contributions from Professors of music, literature, and art.

    The editor offers an erudite chapter on the representation of neurology in art, beginning with an ancient tablet from Egypt illustrating a person with an atrophic leg, suggestive of polio. Also, he explores migraine as a possible source for artistic creativity in Hildegarde de Bingen and outlines the influence of neuroanatomy upon artists like Leondardo da Vinci, Theodore Gericault, and Rembrandt van Rijn. Finally, he summarises the panoply of diseases from which Van Gogh may have suffered. A full chapter is dedicated to the various artists who have suffered from epilepsy. In other chapters the art of Sir Charles Bell and the poetry of Henry Head are described.

    There are two exceptionally strong chapters on the cerebral localisation of music. In one the neuroanatomy of music perception and musical memory is described while another summarises research into the neural basis for music in musicians and non-musicians. In this vein, another chapter describes amusia—a rare but intensely studied cognitive disorder. The effect of Mozart on epilepsy (protective), and the relationship of music and madness provide interesting contrasts on music’s effects on behaviour.

    For readers with background in neurology with a special interest in literature there is much to enjoy. Christopher Goetz—a leading medical historian—notes the influence of Shakespeare on Charcot’s teaching. The astute observations by Shakespeare on various neurological conditions once used by Charcot as a teaching tool offer remarkable insights into both Shakespeare and Charcot. Joyce’s use of medical metaphors in Ulysses and other work elucidates a unique perspective on this author’s work. Two chapters address Dostoyevsky; one depicts his use of epilepsy in writing, the other discusses the potential aetiology for his epilepsy. A fascinating and highly scholarly chapter by Ragnar Stien outlines the description of depression, polyneuropathy, as well as ancient Nordic remedies in old Nordic sagas.

    This book should have wide appeal in the neurological and neuroscience community. Not every chapter will appeal to every reader, but there is much to enjoy in this book. It reminds me of some of the later books of Macdonald Critchley as it touches upon a wide range of topics of interest to neurologists. Neurology attracts a disproportionate number of individuals with a strong interest in both science and the arts. This book understands the desire of our community for this information.