Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 28, 2022

Artist with amnesia enlightens scientists

By Mo-Yu Zhou | September 14, 2011

A new exhibit at the Walters Art Museum features art from Lonni Sue Johnson, who lost her memory after contracting a viral infection that resulted in heavy brain damage. Her "recovery art" has helped scientists learn more about the effects of amnesia, as well as the role of language and memory in creativity.

As a result of the virus, Johnson's hippocampus on both sides of her brain was destroyed. Also affected were portions of her left temporal lobe. These parts of the brain are important for memory and spatial learning, and language and perception, respectively. Johnson is still amnesic about events that have occurred in her life, whether distant or more recent. The extent of her recovery is still uncertain.

"There are several cases of accomplished artists who have sustained some kind of brain damage, and we have been examining these cases as we think about what kinds of scientific issues are most important in our studies of [Johnson]," notes Barbara Landau, Cognitive Science Department Chair at Hopkins, who has worked with Johnson. Among these cases is that of Clive Wearing, a musician who was also infected with viral encephalitis.

The exhibit traces Johnson's journey from infection to recovery, including pieces from before she contracted viral encephalitis in 2007. Her old art was distinctive in its combinations of motifs to create layers of meaning, such as a line of holiday shoppers zigzagging in a way that resembles a Christmas tree. Such artworks have graced the cover of The New Yorker magazine and appeared in the New York Times.

A few months into her recovery from the illness, a friend gave Johnson a puzzle book with a similar theme but transposed into language: finding words within a large set of letters. Within a week, she started to create her own word grids, along with lists of words embedded within them. These word grids became pieces of artwork, exploring the meanings, spellings and interrelatedness of various sets of words. According to Landau, Johnson's works are "tightly intertwined with verbal puns; we often see visual puns in the works."

Her intensive art therapy, led by her mother, Margaret Kennard Johnson, has led to a portfolio with distinctive differences as well as similarities to her earlier work. For example, her piece "Things You Hang in a Closet" features a hanger with a word grid drawn within it containing clothing-related words. Thus, while her art is still layered as it was in the past, much of her new work relies on a part of her brain that was not damaged by the illness, the part that allows knowledge of words and their meanings.

Johnson's case has taught scientists a great deal about how creativity works in relation to memory, language, perception and cognition. "I continue to be surprised at her current and ongoing art-work, which – although she cannot draw on memories of previous life experiences, remain visually complex, layered and extremely clever," Landau comments.

In fact, this indicates that her illness, while devastating to her memory, has not had a similar effect on her creativity. "Her creativity has not been diminished by her illness or damage to the brain," says Landau.

Landau also reminds us that "we are really at the beginnings of research on her case, so it is too early to tell what we will find." However, she adds that given the uniqueness of Johnson's case as an artist who produces works that are both similar to and different from her earlier art, and given that our knowledge of how her brain and mind produce creative works is still limited, it is possible that the ongoing research will yield new insights that may lead to further research.

The exhibition featuring Johnson – who is a "delightful, energetic and enthusiastic person who is always delighted to share her art with others," Landau tells us – will be held at the Walters Art Museum in Mount Vernon. The exhibit is entitled "Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist's Journey through Amnesia" and will run from Sept. 17 to Dec. 11.

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