Artistic Memory Can Be An Anomaly

There are still many things about the brain and its function that neuroscientists can not explain, and are considered an anomaly. Such is the case of Lonni Sue Johnson.

Lonni Sue a vibrant artist who embraced life. Her work graced the covers of publications such as the New Yorker, and the business page of the New York Times. She was a pilot, and loved to play her viola. Life was full of fun and adventure — until she contracted a virus that almost killed her – viral encephalitis.

Her lively brain and memories had been wiped out She was totally disabled, but little by little, with the help of her family began to rebuild her life. She relearned to walk and talk, how to use a pencil, and how to do basic things that had been wiped clean from her memory, but the accomplishments she had made were forever lost.

What was not gone was her artistic skill. Although she did not remember her work, she gradually was able to pick up her drawing tools and draw, bringing back the same type of personality she had exhibited prior to the illness — the humor and playfulness, the graceful flow of the curves and lines, etc.

This innate ability was similar to what scientists had found in musicians who had lost their memory, or what they have seen in patients with Alzheimer’s who had lost the majority of their memory but still were able to play a piano or musical instrument and recall musical memory.

Johnson’s former high-school classmate, Barbara Landau, is a professor of cognitive science at the Krieger School and heard about her friend’s case. She spoke with Johnson’s family, and got permission for Lonni to take part in a research project that would examine the effects of viral encephalitis on brain function and creativity.

The researchers found that Lonni, then 61, suffers from amnesia of events before and after her illness, and is unable to form new memories, but somehow her artistic skills are intact — although coordination in use of the drawing tools needed to be reinforced, and she constantly needed to be encouraged to continue to develop her inborn skills. “One hypothesis you can make from her case is that you don’t need a working hippocampus–a fully functioning memory–to be creative,” says Landau.

“She may be able to carry out what we call implicit learning,” says Landau. It’s also possible that Lonni Sue has been able to tap into something called “nondeclarative memory” or “procedural memory,” which is a recall of motor skills and tasks that have been learned and retained almost automatically, like riding a bike. Landau says she observed Johnson touch-typing successfully on a laptop, even though she hadn’t used a computer since becoming ill.

Researchers are still studying Johnson’s ability to improve on language and symbol tests, although she can’t remember taking the tests before. Because she has no short-term memory she has to constantly be assisted with daily activities. Another thing unusual is that the illness severely damaged her left temporal lobe — that controls language functions — yet her large vocabulary was spared. She is capable of using word grids, like those in puzzles, in her art. Is this implicit learning, or is there something else going on in her brain that allows her to do this?

A large poster/map of downtown Princeton that Johnson created prior to her illness hangs in Landau’s office to preserve another memory. “Her art was part of the Princeton culture,” Landau recalls. “When I look at it now, I see this particular style. Lonni Sue has lost a lot of memory of herself. What’s amazing is that she still has enough of a sense of who she is to make her art.”

 Memory Training

About the author:

Ron White is a memory speaker


John Hopkins Magazine — Exploring the Link Between Art and Memory:

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