Creativity & Epilepsy


Because so many great artists and geniuses also had epilepsy, and because a number of healthy people have suddenly found themselves with a new talent after becoming epileptic, there's been a long, steady rise in interest (at least since Aristotle's foray into the subject) in the possible link between talent and epilepsy. Today, a good number of scientists, artists, and writers are asking questions about this possible tie, and sometimes, finding opposing answers.

Two Important Questions

  • There are two important questions one must consider when looking for a link between epilepsy and creativity. The first, and obvious, is does epilepsy "cause" creativity? Or is it rather that---because not all epileptics are creative---those cases of some of the most talented people in our history who also happened to have epilepsy are merely coincidences?

Epileptic Expression

  • One scientist, Norman Geschwind, discovered that some of his epileptic patients wrote an unusual number of notes and often expressed more profound emotions than the average non-epileptic. This is not to say that these people were necessarily great artists, but that they had at least one of the many traits of what we consider to be the "artistic personality." Neuropsychologist Dr. Paul Spiers concurs, "Sometimes the same things that cause epilepsy result in giftedness. If you damage an area [of the brain] early enough in life, the corresponding area on the other side has a chance to overdevelop."

Just Coincidence

  • One might argue that Dr. Geschwind just happened to treat an unusually high number of expressive people, who also happened to be epileptic. It was just a fluke. Dr. Jerome Engel of the University of California School of Medicine believes just that. He states, "the occasional concurrence of epilepsy and genius most likely reflects the probability that a common disorder will at times afflict people with uncommon potential." His conclusion is supported by at least one study---conducted by university researchers Martin Cartwright and others---that found no correlation between epilepsy and heightened creativity.

The Hard Science

  • When various parts of the brain suddenly are exposed to too much electrical activity, an epileptic seizure happens. This can be viewed by scientists with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Because these newly-activated parts control functions such as our sense perceptions, memory, emotion, insight, increased focus and creativity, there appears to be hard scientific evidence supporting the view that epilepsy can cause creativity, but not that it always will. According to psychiatrist Dr. David Bear, "A temporal lobe focus in the superior individual may spark an extraordinary search for that entity we alternately call truth or beauty."

The Case of Chambliss

  • Jim Chambliss is a fervent advocate for the view that there is, without a doubt, a link between epilepsy and creativity. He isn't looking at this from the sidelines. He is an epileptic artist himself and a successful one. But he hasn't always been. He was once a perfectly healthy attorney. Then he was driving one day and another car side-swiped him. The damage caused his epilepsy, but an unexpected artistic talent arose, too. Today, Chambliss continues to be recognized for his unique, highly creative and inspiring works in a variety of artistic media including painting, sculpture and pottery.

An Inspiring Gift

  • Were Socrates, Flaubert, Michelangelo and Poe creative geniuses because they were epileptic? One day we may know for sure, but a couple of facts are already certain: MRI's reveal increased electrical activity in the brain during an epileptic seizure, and epileptics such as Jim Chambliss exist. Today, there are probably thousands of other gifted epileptics just like him.

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