I am intrigued by memory, how it is stored and how it is accessed, and what metaphors have to do with it all, so I was fascinated to attend a dual lecture given by researcher Mike McCloskey from the Cognitive Science Department at Johns Hopkins University and artist and mother Margaret Kennard Johnson in conjunction with an exhibit at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore featuring the recovery artwork of Lonni Sue Johnson. A successful illustrator before an attack of encephalitis in 2007 left her with severe temporal lobe and frontal cortex damage, she had produced delightfully whimsical and often insightful drawings, brimming with visual puns and clever conceptual conceits.
Lonni’s illness has basically destroyed her working memory. She remembers her mother, her sister, a few old friends, and little else. She can retain new information for no more than a matter of seconds. While she can read words, she quickly loses the context, and trying to follow ideas from one sentence to the next is futile. Yet she can read music, and still remembers how to play the viola. Surprisingly, her language is intact. Her personality and her sense of humor are the same, though she remembers very little about her own history. I watched a fascinating video of a conversation with her, when, given the slightest of prompts about 9/11, she was able to retrieve some details about the event: that it was about a big building in NYC, that it was sad, that there was an explosion, a declaration of war.
As tragic as brain damage is for a victim, for brain researchers, it offers a special opportunity to study how the brain works. Her story raises fascinating questions about the nature of mind and memory. About what is lost and what might only be consciously inaccessible. About what is knowledge and what is a skill. About just what one’s personality is– is it or isn’t it dependent on the memories that we imagine helped shape it? To what degree is the subconscious intact and functioning when the physical and conscious mind is damaged? And what role might word-making and art-making have in neuroplasticity, in laying new neural pathways in the brain to areas we may not suspect capable of playing a role in a particular ability to compensate for the ones that were lost?
The Walters exhibit shows the many stages of Lonni Sue’s drawings over the three years, incorporating her obsession with word puzzles, theoretically an instinctive urge to heal using what skills she has retained and the power of images on paper to extend the time she can hold onto an idea that would otherwise slip away like water through her hands. Representational art-making is always metaphor-making (“It’s like this in my perception”), and to make art is to tap into the storehouse of metaphors in the brain. I was left pondering what further role her metaphors may play in Lonni Sue’s healing.
What it is about her story that peaks your curiosity?