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Last Updated: Monday, 21 June, 2004, 19:12 GMT 20:12 UK
Creative side unlocked by stroke
Image of Tommy McHugh
Tommy spends most of his time writing and drawing
Before suffering a stroke three years ago, Tommy McHugh had no interest in art save for the tattoos that covered his arms while in prison.

Now, Tommy, 54, spends every moment he can drawing, sculpting and writing poetry.

Tommy's stroke appeared to unlock his creative side.

This phenomenon is extremely rare, with only two other cases of "sudden artistic output" following brain injury documented worldwide.

Tommy's stroke was caused by two small bleeds in both sides of his brain known as subarachnoid haemorrhages

Surgeons at Fazakerly Hospital in Liverpool repaired the bleeds using a clip and a coil.

Creative compulsion

Ten days later, Tommy returned home with "a woman they said was my wife".

Tommy said he was jumbled and confused for the first few weeks after the operation.

"I didn't know much about who I was and what I was. My brain wasn't telling me I was hungry, I was talking in relentless rhymes. Everything was a rhyme."

I just plough into it, finish it, move away and then go and maybe make a clay head.
Tommy McHugh

Unable to understand him, his ex-wife who was caring for him at the time gave Tommy a pen and paper and asked him to write down what he meant.

"I started writing poetry in rhymes about what I was experiencing. The personalities I was living with at the time were revolving like a chamber in a gun," he said.

Tommy began to draw pencil sketches and felt tip drawings in the hundreds. This was followed by large-scale pastel drawings on the walls of his house and by sculpture in a number of different media.

"I'd spend 10 hours doing a mural on a wall thinking it was only 10 seconds," he said.

Tommy describes his thinking as split minded. "It's like memories are jigsaw patterns for me. I can get a bit of it and fit it together and it will fall apart. It's like standing on the edge of a cliff with the brick underneath your feet crumbling."

He says his creativity is the same.

"It's like Mount Etna exploding. Fairy liquid bubbles of intelligence and they are popping around me all the time - grabbing one and trying to remember it before it floats away, popping.

"I just plough into it, finish it, move away and then go and maybe make a clay head. I finish that and go and play with a bit of stone, come back and do another picture, sit down and write a poem, get up and make a butterfly out of birds' feathers."

Tommy said his personality also changed following the stroke.

Personality change

Before the stroke he led what he calls a violent life, with a long history of heroin addiction.

Now, Tommy says he is in touch with his feminine side and is happier now.

"I like what I'm being, what I am. I'm happy being the Tommy I am now, not the Tommy people remember.

"Whatever happened inside my brain I find it absolutely fantastic," he said.

Dr Mark Lythgoe, neurophysiologist at University College London said: "It may be that the brain damage that Tommy has sustained has caused disinhibition of brain pathways, allowing Tommy's creativity to surface.

"Perhaps, whatever was keeping his artistic talents hidden or dormant has been damaged just enough to allow them to pour through. Somewhere, it seems, a floodgate has been opened.

"We are still a long way from understanding the brain bases of the artistic drive, but we hope that by studying rare and intriguing cases like Tommy's, we might get a glimpse of what could be going on," he said.

Dr Lythgoe is due to publish a paper about Tommy McHugh this year along with psychologists Tom Pollak and Michelle de Haan.

Mr Pollak said: "We have tested Tommy on a large variety of neuropsychological tests in the hope that we might be able to get an idea of what has been happening in his brain."

He'll make things out of anything. If you sit him in a room he'll be making something out of a paper cup while you are talking to him
Marion Kalmus, international artist and Artist in Residence at the Institute of Child Health

Tommy's art has been exhibited at various local libraries and galleries and he has begun to make something of a name for himself as a local artist.

Marion Kalmus, international artist and Artist in Residence at the Institute of Child Health, is conducting an analysis of the evolution of Tommy's artwork since he started producing.

"He'll make things out of anything. If you sit him in a room he'll be making something out of a paper cup while you are talking to him," she said.

"It's not that it gave him tremendous technical abilities - he's not become Leonardo da Vinci or anything like that.

"It's all very passionate and done very quickly. It's like a compulsion, like a volcano. Many artists experience their creative moments in the same way," she said.

Tommy and Dr Lythgoe will discuss Tommy's changes at the Science Museum's Dana Centre in London on Thursday as part of an evening of events dedicated to exploring the creative mind.


SEE ALSO:
Stroke death rate slashed by 40%
11 Jun 04 |  Oxfordshire
Surgery 'halves risk of stroke'
07 May 04 |  Health
Stroke victims mobility device
03 May 04 |  Wiltshire


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