The Brain of Joy Division

The brain defines us. It is the organ that allows us to feel, talk, dance, sing. The brain is a fragile machine, and the smallest of neurological changes can alter the essence of who we are. But hidden behind our expressive faces, it is easy to disregard the impact of this organ.  How do fluctuations in the brain effect the figures that we idolise and worship?

In late 1976 there was a rumble in post-punk jungle. Four Manchester based boys were forming a band, a band that adopted more names than you’ve had hot dinners. The band evolved from Stiff Kittens to Warsaw, until they settled for a name originally given to the brothels of Nazi concentration camps in The House Of Dolls -Joy Division. The brain and voice behind the lyrics was Ian Curtis, a married father of one.

Curtis suffered from depression, and in addition, the year after Joy Division took their name, Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a complex disease in which the sufferer experiences recurrent, spontaneous seizures. The brain is composed of billions of neurons that interconnect to create a complex, and ever-changing network. Neurons communicate by releasing compounds called neurotransmitters. Some neurotransmitters will excite the subsequent cell, causing it to fire and release additional neurotransmitters, while other neurotransmitters inhibit the neighbouring cells, preventing neurotransmitter release. Normally, the inhibitory and excitatory transmitters are in equilibrium. However, during an epileptic seizure, there is a shift towards the excitatory neurotransmitters, and a flurry of ‘electrical activity’ spreads throughout the brain.

It is theorised that this increase in excitation induces neuronal death, which in turn results in atrophy, the shrinkage of brain tissues. This atrophy is particularly prevalent in the hippocampus- the structure involved with memory and learning. Furthermore, a recent paper released by Krishnamoorthy, a neuropsychiatrist, suggested that epilepsy results in an increase in amgydala volume – a structure involved in emotions. These structural fluctuations result in emotional and behavioural changes in the sufferer, which, as appears to be the case with Curtis, often manifest themselves as depression.

A depiction of the combined effect of epilepsy and depression depicted by the change in amygdala and hippocampus and the EEG of a seizure.
A depiction of the combined effect of epilepsy and depression 



For Curtis, it is clear that the two conditions perpetuated each other.  As he struggled to manage his epilepsy, the seizures got worse, he became increasingly embarrassed and frustrated as they often occurred on stage, and with this frustration and depression came the inability to sleep, and then more seizures. A very vicious cycle. During the tour of the band’s album Closer, Ian attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on his anti-epileptic medication. This event, along with his lyrics, are a major manifestation of  the depression Curtis suffered.

Fast-forward to 1980. After an evening watching Stroszek and filling his ears with Iggy Pop, Ian hung himself in the kitchen of his home in Macclesfield. We can not conclude that this tragic act was a directly result of neurological changes induced by Curtis’s depression and epilepsy, but there appears to be a strong link.  Studies suggest that the risk of suicide is 32 times higher in epileptics suffering from depression than in unaffected people.

Curtis’s brain gave the world two incredible albums, and had an undeniable influence on the music industry. Could it be that his neurological conditions influenced to his genius creativity, while also, ultimately leading to his demise?


Words and Art by Bella Spencer

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