See Inside April 2005

Unleashing Creativity

Moments of brilliance arise from complex cognitive processes. Piece by piece, researchers are uncovering the secrets of creative thinking

Jancy Chang, a high school art teacher in San Francisco, had been painting since she was a child. She varied her technique from Western-style watercolors to classical Chinese brushstrokes, but she always strove for realism: painting landscapes and people in social settings as literally as she could. Then, in 1986, at age 43, she began to have problems performing her job. Grading, preparing for class, putting together lesson plans--everything that she had previously done with ease--became increasingly difficult over the next few years. By 1995 she could no longer remember the names of her students and was forced to take early retirement.

Understandably frightened, Chang had started seeing neurologist Bruce L. Miller, clinical director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California at San Francisco. He diagnosed her with frontotemporal dementia. This relatively rare form of dementia selectively damages the temporal and frontal lobes, primarily in the brain's left hemisphere. These regions control speech and social behavior and are intimately involved in memory. Patients often become introverted, exhibit compulsive behaviors and lose inhibitions that would otherwise prevent them from acting inappropriately toward others in social settings.

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