Now You See It, Now You Don’t

With 3 weekends having gone by already, I can easily say that this past weekend’s excursion to Provence was the most enjoyable one yet. The countryside in Provence was beautiful and the sights were breathtaking. From the Palais de Papes in Avignon to Pont du Gard to the city of Arles, this weekend gave me an enlightening glimpse into life in southern France. Earlier this week in class, I learned how Van Gogh spent the last years of his life in the Provence region, more specifically in the city of Arles. While in the city, I was able to visit the places around Arles that Van Gogh captured in many of his artworks. Van Gogh’s impressionistic paintings seem to have a life of their own, with golden strokes and dark blue swirls that seem to come right off the page. Standing in the same town that Van Gogh once called home and created masterpiece after masterpiece left me feeling in such a state of wonder. My state of wonder then began to stray away from the aesthetic aspect of his paintings towards pondering how did such a town inspire so many priceless works of art. I thought back to class when we discussed what Van Gogh’s life in southern France was like and the hardships he endured. Looking out over the Rhone, I began to ask to what level did Van Gogh’s mental state affect his work?

Actual location for the inspiration behind Van Gogh’s “La Nuit Etoilee”.

Amidst the beauty of these masterpieces lies hints toward the state of mind of Van Gogh. Surprisingly, many famous artists, inventers, composers, and the artistically creative show manic-depressive tendencies (Z. Janka, 2004). As discovered in class, Van Gogh was in fact plagued by many mental ailments, including hallucinations, seizures, night mares, insomnia, anxiety, manic episodes, depressive episodes, and alcohol abuse. One of Van Gogh’s most famous pieces, “Starry Night”, is thought to be inspired by a hallucination as he was admitted to a mental asylum at the time with no view of the cityscape accessible to him. Based on his reported behavior and mental ailments, I would most likely diagnose Van Gogh with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is characterized by the National Institute of Mental Health as manic and depressive episodes that can be accompanied by psychotic symptoms (hallucinations and delusions) as well as substance abuse (NIMH). Approximately 15% of those with bipolar disorder have visual hallucinations and 28% have auditory hallucinations (F. Waters et al., 2014). The notion that multiple of Van Gogh’s artworks may have been a result of a hallucination intrigued me, as his paintings appear highly vivid, rich in color, with realistic yet whimsical details. Upon investigation into the neural mechanisms behind hallucinations, I learned that there are multiple ways that neurocircuitry plays a role in producing hallucinations.

When a sensation is perceived, let’s say a visual sensation, information from that sensation is sent from the retina to the visual cortex (V1). This is called bottom-up processing. When the brain first perceives a stimulus and then uses previous knowledge to influence what you are perceiving, it is known as top-down processing (A. Engel et al., 2001). A popular theory to the occurrence of hallucinations faults failures in either top-down or bottom-up processing that results in a perceptively false experience (L. Zmigrod et al., 2016). In psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, signals between top-down and bottom-up processing may become tonically hyperactive, causing top-down sensory expectations that result in false conscious experiences, otherwise known as a hallucination (S. Grossberg. 2000).  Another theory behind the manifestations of hallucinations focuses more strongly on bottom-up processing. When visual hallucinations occur, there is heightened activity in secondary and association visual cortices, the occipital lobe, and in visual processing areas in the parietal lobes. This hyperactivation of different brain regions may cause over-perceptualization which results in a change in activity in areas such as the prefrontal or premotor cortices, allowing for individuals to have a false sense of agency and perceive their own internal auditory or visual activity as “vivid external percepts” (L. Zmigrod et al., 2016). Either way, these false senses of stimuli or experiences cause an individual to perceive a false reality, hallucinating visual or auditory experiences and believing them to be authentic.

Diagram comparing top-down processing to bottom-up processing

Even given Van Gogh’s medical history, his personal account of his struggles, accounts from people who interacted with him, it is still difficult to fully understand the impact that his mental/physical  health had on his work. Was “Starry Night” a complete illusion? Did Van Gogh cut off his ear due to an auditory illusion? While we may never know the true answers to the questions, we can still infer that Van Gogh was, at the least, influenced by his possible bipolar disorder and the hallucinations that may have accompanied it.

Map of Arles, France

 

Works Cited

Engel, A. K., Fries, P., & Singer, W. (2001). Dynamic predictions: oscillations and synchrony in top–down processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience2(10), 704.

Grossberg, S. (2000). How hallucinations may arise from brain mechanisms of learning, attention, and volition. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society6(5), 583-592.

Janka, Z. (2004). Artistic creativity and bipolar mood disorder. Orvosi hetilap145(33), 1709-1718.

NIMH: Bipolar Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml

Waters, F., Collerton, D., Ffytche, D. H., Jardri, R., Pins, D., Dudley, R., Larøi, F. (2014). Visual hallucinations in the psychosis spectrum and comparative information from neurodegenerative disorders and eye disease. Schizophrenia bulletin40 Suppl 4(Suppl 4), S233–S245. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbu036

Zmigrod, L., Garrison, J. R., Carr, J., & Simons, J. S. (2016). The neural mechanisms of hallucinations: a quantitative meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews69, 113-123.

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