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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Ch. 6: Neurology


Apr 22 2007, 4:08pm

Views: 458
J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Ch. 6: Neurology Can't Post

First I need to give a strong disclaimer here: I am not under any circumstance trying to diagnose Tolkien with some kind of disorder, nor attempting--in showing some neurological basis to art--to make a one-to-one correlation with Tolkien's art in his later years. That would be the height of irresponsibility.

I am attempting to talk about the wonderful way our individual brains work and the correlation between neurology and art.


Tolkien's art in his later years revolved around a certain set of patterned figures. Even when he drew non-symmetrical figures (such as the stylized trees on the postcard seen in this chapter), he put those figures into a pattern (like a "rug" or a "belt"). He did not finish his writing of the Silmarillion as he had intended; instead, he spent a lot of time on letters and on drawing Elvish heraldic devices. He lavished a lot of care on these devices, learning to "perfect" them, according to H&S, by using guidelines and compass, etc.

These intricate patterns for the Elvish devices:

"...are usually symmetrical on every axis, which often imparts a sense of perpetual rotation, perhaps intended to suggest the immortality of the Elves within the circles of the world. In contrast, the devices of Men tend to be symmetrical only on either side of the vertical axis, and often have a strong horizontal axis as well. In these the movement is not curcular, but extends from teh centre outward towards the frame with an impetus to thrust beyond it." H&S

The "neuropsychology" of art has been a topic of discussion for the last several years in a cross-categorical section of the scientific and medical profession. For instance, in his book The Mind Cave, David Lewis-Williams postulates that the emergence of art coincided exactly with the emergence of modern human consciousness:

"...Beginning with a critical overview of the way that Palaeolithic Art has been regarded since its 19th century discovery, the author shows that interpretations of the purpose of the paintings as being decorative "art for arts sake", hunting magic or simple totemism are no longer valid. He then looks in some detail at intelligence and consciousness in prehistory and maintains that as Palaeolithic people were thoroughly modern human beings, then their nervous system was identical to that of ourselves. He looks at how the human nervous system shapes visual hallucinations in altered states of consciousness and compares abstract patterns painted on walls with shapes seen by people under laboratory conditions of altered consciousness....his arguments are well presented and come together when he looks at the rock paintings of the San people of South Africa and early Native Americans. Their paintings have much in common with those of the Palaeolithic - not just the animals, but the abstract shapes of zigzags, tunnels and lattice squares. Such designs, he argues, are entoptic phenomena caused by the spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex...." (review here)

"...seeking to understand west European cave art in the context of (and as a marker of) the new intellectual capacities of anatomically modern humans. Radiocarbon dates for the earliest west European cave art now place it contemporary with the demise of the Neanderthals around 30,000 years ago, and cave art, along with carved or decorated portable items, appears to announce the arrival and denote the success of modern humans in this region. Lewis-Williams argues that such cave art would have been beyond the capabilities of Neanderthals, and that this kind of artistic ability is unique to anatomically modern humans...." (review here)

These are the "entopic forms" Lewis-Williams is talking about:

In another book called Neurology of the Arts: Painting, Music and Literature:

"This book is the first attempt to provide a basis for the interaction of the brain and nervous system with painting, music and literature. The introduction deals with the problems of creativity and which parts of the brain are involved. Then an overview of art presents the multiple facets, such as anatomy, and the myths appearing in ancient descriptions of conditions such as polio and migraine. The neurological basis of painters like Goya and van Gogh is analysed. Other chapters in the section on art cover da Vinci's mechanics and the portrayal of epilepsy. The section on music concerns the parts of the brain linked to perception and memory, as well as people who cannot appreciate music, and the effect of music on intelligence and learning (the Mozart effect). The section on literature relates to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Conan Doyle, James Joyce and the poetry of one of England's most famous neurologists, Henry Head."

Similarly, in a review called The neuropsychology of visual artistic production (PubMed):.

"From this review it appears that artists are not spared visual-motor deficits despite their special graphic abilities. Rather their talents allow them to express visual deficits with particular eloquence. By contrast, the effects of aphasia on art are variable. In addition to deficits, neuropsychological syndromes may be associated with positive phenomena. Such phenomena induced by epilepsy or migraines can serve to inspire artists. This review also makes clear that artists with neuropsychological deficits do not necessarily produce art of lesser quality. Rather, their art may change in content or in style, sometimes in surprising and aesthetically pleasing ways."

In another study called Visual art, creativity, and dementia (PubMed), we find the authors concluding that there must be a specific "organization for art" in the brain, because even when part of the brain is being affected by a dementia, "artistic preservation" occurs:

"A 68 year-old right handed woman, diagnosis: Fronto-Temporal Dementia (FTD). Artistic description: Increased artistic activity, originality, freedom, utilization of intense colours with perseverative and repetitive copying of similar paintings of her own work. CONCLUSIONS:Visual art in Alzheimer's disease is a consequence of visuospatial and constructive disabilities. In contrast, the conservation of this cognitive functions and left asymmetrical involved...suggest artistic preservation, independently of the language injury. The disproportionate functional prevalence of the right over the left could lead to a release of novelty - seeking in art and can contribute to emergent creativity. These observations suggest an organization for art in the brain..."

And in an interview called "The Art of Dementia" on the BBC:

"Doctors in San Francisco recently reported on a number of people suffering from a kind of dementia called fronto-temporal dementia; even as parts of their brains were slowly dying and ceasing to function, they developed entirely new artistic abilities.... however there are two important findings in these patients. One is that the neuro-chemical, serotonin is profoundly depleted and I think that this leads some of them to crave chocolate, sweets and to overeat. In others I think that you develop a profound compulsion which is due to the lack of serotonin. This compulsion contributes to the art and music that they produce, because they become obsessed with their art and they do it over and over again and I think that this constant repetition really is at the core of their success.' 'What I discovered when I went through all of my patient population, which is now in the hundreds, was that only a small percentage of the patients showed this blossoming of visual or musical capability. It seemed to be a group who degenerated primarily on the left side of the brain and the left temporal lobe. This degeneration knocks out language in a profound way and these people loose the meaning of words.'

As the individual looses these abilities, what is happening elsewhere in the brain? Miller explains:

'We think that the abilities that remain and indeed flourish are probably in the back part of the brain in the posterior temporal and parietal lobe."

OBVIOUSLY this cannot explain Tolkien's abililities as he most definately did not "lose the meaning of words"!!! REMEMBER this isn't diagnosis, just thoughts about how nifty a thing is a human brain.

Artistic renderings of migraine auras have been studied for many years. For instance:


Contrast that picture of a migraine aura with this device of Tolkien's:

to see a similar effect of motion or movement in a circular field.

Here's another example of a circular aura:


1. Any thoughts on why Tolkien's art changed in his later years?
2. Is it related to his inability to finish (or possibly his disinterest in finishing) his Silmarillion?
3. Is the repetetive nature of his "patterns and devices" drawn in these years related to previous artistic output (visual and written)?


"an seileachan"

Some say they're going to a place called Glory, and I ain't saying it ain't a fact.
But I've heard that I'm on the road to Purgatory, and I don't like the sound of that!
I believe in love, and live my life accordingly,
And I choose: let the mystery be.
~~~~Iris DeMent

Subject User Time
J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Ch. 6: Neurology a.s. Send a private message to a.s. Apr 22 2007, 4:08pm
    Chapter 6 dior Send a private message to dior Apr 23 2007, 10:08am
        Masterpieces One Ringer Send a private message to One Ringer Apr 24 2007, 10:17am
        Welcome Dior! Daughter of Nienna Send a private message to Daughter of Nienna Apr 24 2007, 6:00pm
        Hi there! dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn Apr 27 2007, 1:14pm
            Thanks dior Send a private message to dior Apr 29 2007, 9:57am
    vertical axis | right brain type stuff Daughter of Nienna Send a private message to Daughter of Nienna Apr 24 2007, 8:56pm
    Mahalo Nui Loa Daughter of Nienna Send a private message to Daughter of Nienna Apr 26 2007, 9:33pm
    Fascinating stuff! dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn Apr 27 2007, 1:04pm
    hard questions! Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow May 1 2007, 2:42am


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