The Creativity Pill

People taking dopamine for Parkinson's disease sometimes begin to generate a lot of artwork. New research differentiates their expressiveness from obsessive or impulsive tendencies.
Various artists/Parkinson's Disease Foundation/The Atlantic

Neurologist Rivka Inzelberg recently noticed that her patients with Parkinson’s disease seemed to be authoring more novels than older people tend to author.

Looking closer, poems and paintings also seemed to be pouring out of afflicted patients, in a relative sense—specifically those treated with a synthetic dopamine-precursor pill, levodopa (L-DOPA).

So Inzelberg, a professor at Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, asked around. She wasn’t the only one in her field to have noticed as much. She examined the correlation in a comprehensive 2013 review study, which found creative thinking in medicated Parkinson’s patients to be higher than in their unaffected peers.

This week she published new research that breaks down the relationship in the journal Annals of Neurology, and whether the observed creativity—which she defines as a combination of originality, flexibility, and inclination to combine novel and practical ideas—might be due to obsessive tendencies.

“Because the medication can cause a loss of impulse control—let's say, obsessive painting, obsessive hobby-ism—we wanted to check if there was a correlation between creativity measures and impulsivity and compulsivity measures,” Inzelberg told me by phone from Israel. (She very courteously warned me that she may have to hang up abruptly to take shelter if a missile alarm goes off, as has been happening at her Tel Aviv medical center. “Would it be better to talk later?” I asked, dumbly. “There is no later. This is how we’re living.”)

Development of uncontrollable artistic urges has been documented in medical case studies. One 41-year-old woman with Parkinson's disease who began taking levodopa developed what neurologists called a "devastating addiction to painting." Her home became a gathering place for artists, and she began compulsively buying painting materials. She described the spiral earlier this year in a medical journal: "I started painting from morning till night, and often all through the night until morning. I used countless numbers of brushes at a time. I used knives, forks, sponges … I would gouge open tubes of paint–it was everywhere. But I was still in control at that point. Then, I started painting on the walls, the furniture, even the washing machine. I would paint any surface I came across. I also had my 'expression wall' and I could not stop myself from painting and repainting [it] every night in a trance-like state. My partner could no longer bear it. People close to me realized that I crossed some kind of line into the pathological, and, at their instigation, I was hospitalized. Today, my doctors have succeeded in getting my medication under control, and my creativity has become more tranquil and structured."

So Inzelberg’s current study tested for symptoms of impulse control disorder, as well as creativity—which it did in a variety of ways. One exam asked people to mention as many different words beginning with a certain letter and in a certain category as possible. In a remote association test, people were given three words and had to name a fourth. Another test required interpretation of abstract images and assessed imaginative answers to questions like, "What can you do with sandals?" Subjects were also asked to interpret novel metaphors.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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