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An artist's journey through amnesia

Lonni Sue Johnson's quirky, clever, colorful illustrations appeared in such prominent publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times before an attack of viral encephalitis in 2007 left the artist with severe brain damage.

The virus attacked both sides of Johnson's brain, ravaging the hippocampus, a structure crucial for forming and storing new memories.

The illness also damaged other portions of her temporal lobe that scientists think may be important for memory and other abilities, such as language and perception. As a result, Johnson could not recall much detail about her pre-illness life, nor remember what happened five minutes ago.

Lonni Sue Johnson's illustrations appeared in prominent publications before an attack of viral encephalitis in 2007 left her with severe, memory-impairing brain damage. Click on the images above to view larger versions. Images courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

Enter the power of art. Under the guidance of her mother, also a professional artist, Johnson began putting pencil to paper and created a voluminous collection of "recovery art." Johns Hopkins researchers are now studying these works—and the artist herself—in an effort to unlock the secrets of the brain and creativity. Some of Johnson's images, produced both before and after the attack of encephalitis, will be on display at the Walters Art Museum Sept. 17 through Dec. 11 in a unique exhibition called "Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist's Journey through Amnesia."

The exhibition will feature about three dozen drawings exploring the impact of severe brain damage on the life and creativity of this artist, who is now in her early 60s. Viewed chronologically, the collection tells an inspiring story of how one artist is moving forward in the aftermath of a devastating illness.

The compilation also poses fascinating scientific questions about the nature of perception, cognition, imagination, creativity and the brain, says cognitive scientist and principal investigator Barbara Landau.

"Lonni Sue's case suggests an intriguing new set of research questions that can shed light on the nature of artistic creativity and how it can become derailed with brain damage and then restored thereafter," Landau says. "It also offers us the opportunity to use the science we are doing to work with a broader community—in this case, through the Walters—to promote an appreciation of the synergies between art and science."

Over the last year, Landau and her research partner, Michael McCloskey, also a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins, have tested Johnson in a number of ways, using both standardized tests and "tailor-made" instruments.

The research team is struck by Johnson's surviving vocabulary and facility with words. Indeed, her "new" artwork is strongly word-oriented. In fact, it was a word-search puzzle book given to Johnson by a friend that sparked a breakthrough in her recovery as an artist post-encephalitis. Johnson began to make word lists of her own, which she then inserted into grids by theme or in alphabetical order. Some of the drawings are remarkably simple, and others are fantastically complex.

"All in all," McCloskey says, "Lonni Sue's story is both an inspiring and intriguing one that brings up a host of questions that we hope eventually to be able to answer."

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