The John Sevier apartment complex in Johnson City, Tennessee, is home to a unique combination of different types of people, ranging from disabled veterans to the unemployed. Amongst them, lives artist Bryan Lewis Saunders. His fourth floor flat is both his home and studio, filled with art materials and the sketchbooks in which he has visually documented most of his adult life. Saunders started his collection of self-portraits when he was 26 and has drawn pieces of himself during events throughout his life. The eclectic range of portraits catalogue an unusual life and feature himself on the Appalachian hiking trail, seeing a rattlesnake for the first time, and during a visit to China to become a stand-up comedian.
Of these hundreds of self-portraits, 50 of them have become particularly famous. In a disturbing and frankly dangerous art project, Saunders experimented with a huge range of drugs to explore the effect they had on his pieces. Saunders snorted, smoked and popped pills of a different cocktail of drugs every day, for 50 days, from which the brain damage caused “fortunately wasn’t irreparable”. As usual, Saunders drew daily self-portraits, but did so under the influence of these substances, and their diverse effects on the brain are reflected in the strange and varying styles of portrait.
One of Saunders’ portraits stands out as particularly harrowing, he created it after taking half a gram of cocaine. Unlike most of his pieces, it is monochromatic and dark, with heavy shading and nightmarish surrealism. The subject bears little resemblance to himself, and is covered with strange symbols and numbers. Conversely, as a mess of scattered scribbles and smudges, his portrait after taking phencyclidine (PCP), other wise known as Angel Dust, is barely recognisable as a figure. One of the only obvious indications of how Saunders was feeling whilst drawing, is the eerie pair of glasses lying haphazardly on the floor.
The erratic nature of these pieces provides evidence for the mechanisms in the brain that would normally allow artists to create and design. As in this case they have clearly been disrupted by mind-altering drugs. The neurology underlying the creation of artworks has scarcely been studied by neuroscientists, despite it providing a unique portal into the complex and otherwise difficult to research processes of creativity. This may have been a result of the longstanding idea that art and science do not correlate. The contrast between art and science is so large that it was theorised they were processed in completely separate halves of the brain, but assigning creativity to one half of the brain is far too simplistic. Realistically, the artistic process requires both the conscious and unconscious, and a combination of complex models, such as memory, emotion and knowledge.
So how does the brain enable us to create masterpieces? It was Leonardo da Vinci who first inadvertently began answering this question, when he theorised the human method of depth perception in order to represent it on a canvas. The method of sfumato, the gradual change in tone and colour, arose from this, and is most famously seen in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. More modern explanations for vision of depth are known as depth cues, and include binocular parallax, which describes the physical phenomenon that is the creation of depth using the eyes as two separate vantage points.
Additionally, to visually represent a subject the brain must co-ordinate further processes that are essential in the creative process. These are organised into three networks, spanning a large proportion of the brain. The Executive Attention Network focuses the artist’s attention and regulates their working memory, which is the short-term storage of information for a certain task. This enables the artist to retain the image of their subject. The action of this network is shared between the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain, and the parietal lobe, which is located towards the back of the top half of the brain. Therefore, the Executive Attention Network overlaps with the Default Network, which is active in the temporal lobe, in the middle of the bottom half of the brain, prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe. This network is responsible for imagining new scenarios, such as visualising the future. This ability to imagine directly leads to the ability to create. Finally, the Salience Network acts deep in the centre of the brain, in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortices, in the upper region towards the front, and anterior insular. This network is the regulator, and is necessary to control the actions of both aforementioned networks. It is believed the communication and balance between these networks are predominantly responsible for the creative process.
However, as well as large regions of the brain, small chemical neurotransmitters in the synapses between neurons must contribute to the creation of art. When released in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for new ideas, decision-making, planning, and inventing, dopamine causes a feeling of elation therefore rewarding these behaviours. As these activities are all components of the creative process, an artist is likely to feel rewarded in response to working on a piece of art. Another important neurotransmitter in the brain is glutamate, which is necessary for the processes of perception, memory, and emotion and therefore will therefore heavily influence the creation of artwork. With the knowledge that PCP alters glutamate and dopamine activity, it is clear to see why this drug had such a detrimental effect on Saunders’ portrait, almost to the point where he couldn’t draw at all. Saunders felt these effects in a way that made him lose “mobility, because it separates your brain from your body”. Similarly, cocaine increases activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe and therefore interferes with both the Executive Attention Network and the Default Network. This may explain the particularly strange imaginings present in the Saunders’s cocaine-influenced portrait.
The causal relationship between the brain and the creation of art can be inverted, meaning that not only does neurology influence creativity, but the process of creating art can affect the mind. Art and creativity is often encouraged in therapy, and the natural relationship between art and the mind may be why, albeit surprisingly, Saunders prefers art therapy over drug therapies. Many of the drugs Saunders drew under the influence of were prescribed anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety medications. Even after these treatments he believes art is “like the best therapy in the world”, and it is the power of art which has saved him from an unstable life.