Stroke can be extremely debilitating, but if the damage is not too severe, and appropriate rehabilitation is administered, the brain can reorganize itself to compensate for the loss of function. This reorganization can occur because the brain remains ‘plastic’ throughout life; it leads to recovery, but can also have unexpected consequences.
Something very unexpected happened to Ken Walters, a 51-year-old former engineer from Lancashire, following his cerebrovascular accident. According to the Daily Mail, Walters suffered a “mild stroke” (possibly a transient ischaemic attack) in 2005, and subsequently “discovered a hitherto unknown talent for art”. He began making simple pencil drawings and then, after his doctors encouraged him to develop his new talent, started to create complex digital images, using software that he wrote himself.
Walters began selling his images on the internet and made some contacts at computer companies. Then, in October of last year, Walters was commissioned by the computer games giant Electronic Arts to create a gallery of 100 digital dinosaurs for a much-anticipated game called Spore, which was released in June of this year. He now earns more than £30,000 a year from merchandising and downloadable cell phone wallpapers he is designing for another company.
Although remarkable, Walters’s story is not unique. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist at Harvard, experienced something very similar: she suffered a rare form of stroke called an arterio-venous malformation in the left hemisphere. As a result, she too discovered a flair for art that she did not previously possess. Taylor related her experience in a TED talk earlier this year; somewhat strangely for someone who trained as an anatomist, she describes it in terms of spirit, nirvana and the “deep inner peace circuitry” of the right hemisphere.