Photo credit: Alex Kornhuber
Creative Brain Week, hosted by the Global Brain Health Institute (GBH) at Trinity College Dublin, is an interdisciplinary exploration of how brain science and creativity collide to seed new ideas in social development, culture, well-being and physical and mental health. Sixteen Atlantic Fellows from six Atlantic Fellows programs and ten countries attended this year’s exhibitions, talks and activities, thanks to support from the Atlantic Institute. The Fellows were drawn from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and experiences, so the five-day event changed their perspectives in different ways.
Atholl Kleinhans, who completed the Health Equity in South Africa program, is a lecturer at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria. He said: "My interest in brain health is based on my personal experience. I lost my maternal grandmother to dementia and Parkinson's disease. We knew so little about the disease at the time. Only now, I have learned that we could have done a lot more for her. Even though my main interest is not in brain health, I have devoted some of my work in health equity to brain health. I have joined the [Fellows'] African Brain Health Network in order to engage in some projects with other Fellows."
Atholl found the session "A celebration of brain health in people with Down syndrome" particularly moving: "In South Africa and in the community where I live, I have never seen a person with Down syndrome who was able to integrate into society.
"We do not have enough schools to provide support to children with Down syndrome. The clear inequalities in health are so obvious. It is unfair that children with Down syndrome in my community become a shame to their families and to the community. They need love and support. This will be my next project," he said.
Adolfo García, in Argentina, graduated as one of the GBHI Fellows from the Global Brain Health Institute. As a neuroscientist, his life revolves around language as he investigates its neural basis and disruptions. He has co-created a network and an app to foster this work globally and leads cultural projects combining language with music and artificial intelligence.
"Few spaces give me a chance for all these streams to converge. Creative Brain Week is the best of them," he said. "I was surrounded by different languages, diverse songs and dances, thought-provoking quilts, spaces for reflection, old and new projects, old and new settings, old and new friends.
"I was surrounded by experts and ideas from fields I know very little about. The experience allowed me to reach three main conclusions: Disciplinary boundaries are more illusory than concrete; The “What?” can inspire people, but the “How?” can transform them; and except for in the West, Western medicine is alternative medicine."
Lungile Dube has completed the Health Equity in South Africa program. She works with adolescent women of Kwazulu Natal and uses a form of informal writing with the community educators of the Eastern Cape province, in the city of Gqeberah. With the youth of South Africa, she uses concepts of self-actualization and writing as a practice for freeing oneself and learning to find one’s own voice.
"When working in an environment where youth and young women are always subjected to a lack of self-worth and feel less safe both inside and outside the family, the arts become a beacon of hope," she said.
"Creative Brain Week was key to allowing my mind to gel in the space of how one can enhance the curriculum within our system through the introduction of the arts and brain health within our existing conceptual project: self-actualization and writing as a practice of freedom.
"Creative Brain Week reintroduced me to the concept of awe. My work need not be dwelling on the sensitive and negative aspects of stories and voices. But rather, it can incite what is already there through methodological tools which can either hinder sadness or bring the positive aspect as the main leading engine, so create a pedagogy of hope and drive positivity."
Adekemi Adeniyan, in Nigeria, completed the Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity program and is the founder and executive director of the Dentalcare Foundation.
She said: "Creative Brain Week 2023 taught me a valuable lesson — that innovation doesn't necessarily demand something entirely new. Instead, it can be achieved by adopting a new perspective and reimagining old ideas in a fresh and innovative way.
"Inspired by this thought, I am committed to integrating more creative activities into my daily routine and promoting the use of art to enhance oral health within my community. By leveraging the power of creative expression, I strongly believe we can work towards building stronger, healthier communities and improve overall well-being."
Bongiwi Lusizi, from Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, said: "My role at Creative Brain Week was to look at Indigenous-led methods of approaching mental health. I come from a remote rural background and it is a community of people that have been faced with trauma, people who have been victimized and dehumanized and have no understanding that all these challenges can lead to mental health illnesses.
"Mental health in rural communities is still being stigmatized and demonized. My role is to use music as a tool that can be therapeutic for the body, the mind and the soul. Music evokes feelings of joy and as well as creating imagination. In my experience of being a trained healer, I have come across so many people struggling with mental health illnesses.
"Some suffer from internalizing grief and some suffer from opening up. It could be numerous challenges. When I start playing music, I notice that the sound does have an impact on the person listening. In most cases it makes people cry. It could either be feelings of joy or feelings of sadness. Both these emotions demonstrate that music is therapeutic. It was a great platform to collaborate and surface ideas that can contribute towards social change. Art is a healer."
Eliza Squibb, from the Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity program, collaborates with artists worldwide to create culturally appropriate tools for patients. She said: "I came away from the convening full of hope. As a Fellow working in the arts, it was inspiring to see the myriad ways in which creative activities support brain health and it gave me optimism for future collaborations with other Fellows from across programs.
"I was thrilled that our 'Living Lab' focused on visual art that I co-led with Fellow Wambūi Karanja was a success. We could sit down and brainstorm together, sketch, paint and learn about visual communication techniques for health awareness. We observed attendees making new connections and friendships as they painted together.”
Wambui Karanja, from the GBHI program, is a dementia advocate based in Kenya. She said: "In my work promoting the understanding of dementia and supporting caregivers of people with dementia, it was an honor to explore creative practice in these areas.
"We were able to co-create beautiful works and words that will live on beyond us and pave ways for creativity in diverse spaces, from classrooms to theaters and across continents. To be in the same room with Global Atlantic Fellows who embody creativity and empathy in their own work was the biggest gift from our time together."