Bolero, dementia and the creative process

Janicki
Janicki

In 1930, when Maurice Ravel composed Bolero, his best-known work, he may have been in the throes of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a neurodegenerative disease that usually affects people in their late 50s. Ravel’s meticulous handwriting had become irregular, he had lost his bags and tickets on a concert tour and, while conducting one of his works, he had uncharacteristically skipped from the opening movement to the coda.

In a talk at neuroscience grand rounds in May, Sarah C. Janicki, M.D., M.P.H., HS ’08, said Ravel’s case is not unusual—FTD has been linked to strong bouts of creativity. “Over time a series of patients were coming to light, patients with FTD developing creative skills,” she said.

Although the reasons for this connection are not clear, the brain’s left temporal lobe appears to be involved. And the disorder appears to release artistic inhibitions—artists move from representational to more abstract forms of expression. But as the disease progresses, that process reverses itself. “As [the patients’] language skills declined, their art became fairly representational instead of a creative manipulation to generate new thought,” Janicki said.