Parkinson’s and creativity

This is a piece a wrote just over a year ago, and I’m going to reproduce it here:

Creativity and Parkinson’s. A contentious pairing of a much-argued ‘gift’ and a disease that rots your brain in an extremely precise manner. They are inextricably connected inasmuch as the fruits of creativity vary wildly in their quality, just as the wholesale slaughter of the basal ganglia seems to produce wildly varying symptoms in each individual. There’s obviously a massive problem with attempting to gauge the true relationship between the two, namely the necessarily subjective nature of assessment. How does one measure creativity? By the quantity of stuff produced, or by the quality. Do we, as PWP, think (as many with various conditions do), that we become more creative as a direct or indirect result of our condition, or do we simply create more? There is, I contend, a very clear difference between the two.

Anecdotally, it appears that PWP experience a surge in the urge to make things, though it’s difficult to tell whether this begins pre or post-diagnosis. This may appear irrelevant but it relates directly to both the mindset of the individual and the chemical state of their brain. That is, diagnosis changes the way the world is viewed, while prescription changes the working of the organ which perceives the world: the brain. Both of these facts can lead to changes in behaviour, one of which is related to creativity.

What follows is utterly uninformed by research, neurological knowhow or any other concrete information. It is, however, informed by my own experience, as both PWP and a writer and musician, as well as my observation of others. I make no claims for it other than it is how I view things. You may disagree. You may think I’m rude. You may even think I’m an idiot. These possible reactions are your prerogative. All I ask is that you try, as I always try, to be honest with yourself about the whole subject.

What I see is that yes, there does seem to be an increase in basic creativity in PWP. This has two possible causes.

The first cause is the shock of diagnosis. To put it simply, the desire to express oneself increases in direct proportion to the extent to which a diagnosis seems to define one. It is, if you like, a raging against the dying of the self. The more we seem defined by our Parkinson’s, the more we wish to assert our sense of self. This urge can be observed in a great increase in extreme behaviours, one of which is increased creativity, while another is charity work, especially work which centres on the individual, such as my batting for Parkinson’s and Country House Cricketer projects, Alex Flynn’s million metres, Tim Andrews’ Over the Hill. All these are good things, don’t get me wrong, but they are centred on the self to a degree perhaps less common in those projects in which people raise money for others. We are raising cash for ourselves, in effect, as well as raising awareness by doing it ourselves. ‘Art’, for want of a better definition, is the conscious assertion of the self into a particular medium. I assert my self when I write. You assert your self when you paint/sculpt/play an instrument … when our sense of self is challenged, such as by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, we need to reassert it. Many choose creative media in which to do it.

The second cause is medication. The indiscriminate flooding of a system with dopamine, a chemical with known connections to the risk/reward cycle in humans, can cause a lot of problems. As we know, dopamine agonists are connected with compulsive eating, shopping, and fucking. At the risk of sounding all Romantic (note capital ‘R’), these three compulsions are not altogether dissimilar from the urge to create. The reason so many artists suffer from drink and drug problems is, I suspect, because creating something stimulates similar receptors. Basically, the creative act pushes the same buttons as the drink, drugs, sex or shopping. It’s rewarding, chemically.

Now, here comes the contentious bit. But not until I’ve softened you up with a nice anecdote. Years ago, a friend’s mother visited an emporium of alcoholic liquor, with a view to buying a bottle of single malt scotch whisky for her favourite (well, only) son. She accosted a likely-looking assistant and announced in her strident tones, ‘I would like to buy a bottle of single malt scotch whisky for my favourite (well, only) son. I know nothing about whisky, but I hear that Glenfiddich is very popular.’ ‘Madam,’ the assistant intoned gravely, ‘its popularity has thus far failed to make it any good.’

I think you know what I’m going to say here. Parkinson’s may well increase the urge to create, but having the urge does not make one an artist. PWP may well create more than ‘normal’ people, but I strongly suspect that much of what is created has value only in the act of creation, rather than holding any intrinsic value in itself.

I’m not for a minute saying don’t do it. Making stuff is a wonderful thing. Just don’t fall into the trap that we are all prone to, that is, do remember that making something does not automatically make it any good.

But bloody well go ahead and make it anyway, because it might just be great – and if not, who cares? If it feels good, do it.

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