How Crossword Puzzles Unlocked An Artist's Memory

Oct 12, 2011
Originally published on October 12, 2011 6:05 pm

It's not often you see an image of a brain scan on the wall of an art exhibit. But among works by Monet and Sisley at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore hangs just that — a cross section of a human brain. It belongs to artist Lonni Sue Johnson.

The room is really two exhibits — the art Johnson created before she contracted viral encephalitis in 2007, which destroyed her hippocampus and parts of her left temporal lobe — and her work after.

The work before her illness includes whimsical and complex illustrations, some of which was featured on covers of The New Yorker magazine and in publications like The New York Times.

The work on the other side of the room is simpler, almost childlike: colored-pencil sketches, still bright and cheerful but very different from the artwork before her brain damage. Grids filled with letters in what appear to be crossword puzzles shaped like objects.

The encephalitis took away many of Johnson's old memories, like her marriage of 10 years and her illustrious art career. But the way she was able to retain certain other memories — and her ability to draw — are mysteries.

So about once a month, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins visits Johnson in the Princeton, N.J., area. They aim to learn more about what she remembers — and why word puzzles are able to unlock her mind and return it to art.

The Effects Of The Illness

Barbara Landau, a professor of cognitive science at Hopkins who has known Johnson since high school, has been working with her ever since the illness left gaping holes in her brain. Landau points out a section of the brain scan.

"Severe hippocampal damage would predict that you would not be able to form new memories, and that means that you're amnesic for experiences that you have on a day-to-day basis," she says.

Johnson's amnesia today is a dramatic improvement over her condition in late 2007. She was spending Christmas alone at her home in Vermont. One afternoon, a local farmer noticed Johnson through the window. She was staring at her computer mouse, not moving.

By the time the farmer got her to a hospital, viral encephalitis had caused severe brain damage. A day later, her sister Aline arrived at the hospital to find Johnson in intensive care.

"She would look at one hand — the palm — and then turn that hand over, look at the back of her hand, and then the front of the hand," Aline says. "And back and forth and then look over to the other hand — just mystified."

Aline says at first her sister couldn't walk, talk or eat.

"She gained her ability to talk, I would say, over the course of a year," Aline says. "When she first started speaking, she was unable to say any nouns. So she would talk and talk, and we had no idea what she was talking about — we were waiting for the end of a sentence where there might be a noun and no noun came."

Word Puzzles Unlock The Brain

But language would soon become the key to unlocking parts of Johnson's mind.

As she regained her ability to speak, Johnson began to create word puzzles. And now, those puzzles serve as a kind of bridge to her return to art.

"She lives in a narrow sliver of the present moment, not well connected to what just happened," Aline says. "And with her puzzles, she's able to capture what's going on in a way that she can use her creative energies. And that's one scaffolding. Another is the alphabet. Because, for example, when she's singing an alphabet song and she's at the letter 'M,' she knows where she's come from, she knows where she's going to. So it gives her a feeling of continuity, of the flow of time, which she might not otherwise be able to get."

But language and drawing aren't the only talents that returned.

Johnson also remembers how to play viola, something she'd learned before her illness.

The researchers at Johns Hopkins are hoping Johnson can help unravel some of the mysteries of memory. Why does Johnson remember her mother and sister and her viola lessons, but little else from her life? She's missing a hippocampus — but she can still learn new things.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz. It's not often you see an image of a brain scan on the wall of an art exhibit, but right here, among the Monets and Sisleys at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore hangs just that: a cross-section of a human brain.

DR. BARBARA LANDAU: So this is a clinical scan that was taken of Lonni Sue's brain not too long ago.

RAZ: We're really standing between two art exhibits: the art Lonni Sue Johnson created before her illness and her work after. Barbara Landau is a professor of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University, and she's showing me around. She's known Lonni Sue Johnson since high school, and she's been working with her ever since viral encephalitis left gaping holes in the brain of this once vibrant artist.

LANDAU: So on both sides of the brain, there is severe damage to the hippocampus, which is a region that we know to be extremely important for the creation and formation of new memories.

RAZ: The illness also took away many of Lonni Sue Johnson's old memories. Her marriage of 10 years, her illustrious art career, Lonni Sue has no recollection. But we'll get to that story in a moment. First, the artwork. On one side of the room hang about a dozen watercolors. Barbara Landau shows me some of the whimsical and complex illustrations Johnson made before she became ill in late 2007, art that was featured on covers of The New Yorker magazine and in publications like The New York Times.

LANDAU: This is called "The Christmas Tree Line," and it was...

RAZ: It's a famous New Yorker cover from 1985.

LANDAU: It is. Right. So you look at it from afar, and it's a Christmas tree, clearly. But then, you go up closer and you see that the Christmas tree is not totally a Christmas tree. Rather, it's a very, very, very long, zigzaggy line of people standing in line with Christmas presents. And so this, to me, is very iconic Lonni Sue. It's got layers of meaning. It's just, again, very, very clever and beautiful.

RAZ: On the other side of the room, separated by that image of the brain scan, hang another dozen or so drawings, but these are simpler colored-pencil sketches, still bright and cheerful but very different: the pictures Lonni Sue has been drawing after her brain damage. These are grids filled with letters and what appear to be crossword puzzles but shaped like objects. Now, what happened to Lonni Sue is not a mystery, but the way she was able to retain certain memories and her ability to draw, well, these are mysteries.

So about once a month, a research team from Johns Hopkins visits Lonni Sue Johnson in the Princeton, New Jersey area, where we met her on a recent afternoon.

Hello.

LONNI SUE JOHNSON: Hi. Hi. Nice to meet you.

RAZ: I'm Guy. Nice to meet you.

JOHNSON: I'm Lonni Sue. You're Guy.

RAZ: Yes.

Lonni Sue sits down at a long wooden table. Her mother, Margaret, and her sister Aline had prepared her for our visit. And Lonni Sue is eager to show off her artwork.

JOHNSON: Let me just show you some of my grids. I'll show you how I set up a grid to do a puzzle. Let's see.

RAZ: She pulls out a stack of elaborate grids drawn in pencil. In each box, she will draw letters, word puzzles that will eventually form a picture associated with that word. So for example, in a piece she calls "Clothes That Hang Up in a Closet," words like dress, blouse and raincoat are written in such a way to form an image, the shape of a clothes hanger in this case. Anyway, after unpacking her pre-drawn grids, Lonni Sue asks for a suggestion of something to draw.

JOHNSON: So I mean, if you're interested in some subject, you know, you could start talking about it.

RAZ: Well, I'm afraid I'm a cat lover, and I know that...

JOHNSON: A cat lover?

RAZ: Yes.

JOHNSON: Oh, I love cats. And that's the beginning of categories. You know, the word categories?

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

JOHNSON: And cattle? I mean, cat begins so many different words.

RAZ: She draws a border around the page and talks and laughs for a few minutes and then looks up, and once again asks for a suggestion. Cats?

JOHNSON: Oh, cats are great. And I love how a cat starts the word category.

RAZ: A minute later, the conversation has repeated.

JOHNSON: And so what subject are you interested in me drawing in?

RAZ: Mm, I mean, we could try people, we could try cats.

JOHNSON: Oh, cats and dogs, dog on categories.

RAZ: The amnesia is obvious. Still, it's a dramatic improvement over Lonni Sue's condition in late 2007. She was spending Christmas alone at her home in Upstate New York. And one afternoon, a local farmer noticed Lonni Sue through the window. She was staring at her computer mouse, and she wasn't moving.

By the time he got her to a hospital, viral encephalitis had caused severe brain damage. A day later, Lonni Sue's sister Aline arrived at the hospital.

ALINE: She would look at one hand, the palm, and then turn that hand over, look at the back of her hand, and then the front of the hand, and back and forth, just mystified.

RAZ: When you saw her at the hospital...

ALINE: Yeah.

RAZ: ...was she speaking?

ALINE: At first, she could not walk, talk or eat. She gained her ability to talk, I would say, over the course of the year. When she first started speaking, she was unable to say any nouns. So she would talk and talk, and we had no idea what she was talking about. We were waiting for the end of the sentence where there might be a noun, and no noun came.

RAZ: But language would soon become the key to unlocking parts of Lonni Sue's mind.

JOHNSON: I love the word plane because if you take the E off the end, it turns into the word plan. So you can plan to fly a plane around this planet. And that's just, you know, taking the word plan and then put E and then put T after the E. Isn't that amazing?

RAZ: As she regained her ability to speak, Lonni Sue began to create word puzzles. And now, those puzzles serve as a kind of bridge to Lonni Sue's return to art.

LANDAU: She lives in a narrow sliver of the present moment, not well connected to what just happened. And with her puzzles, she's able to capture what's going on in a way that she can use her creative energies, and that's one scaffolding. Another is the alphabet. Because, for example, when she's singing an alphabet song and she's at the letter M, she knows where she's come from, she knows where she's going to.

JOHNSON: (Singing) Marvelously noteworthy outstandings.

LANDAU: So we'd use her feeling of continuity of the flow of time, which she might not otherwise be able to get.

JOHNSON: (Singing) Thrillingly uniting, valuable...

RAZ: Lonnie Sue wraps up the alphabet song she made up on the spot. But language and drawing aren't the only talents that have returned.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLA)

RAZ: She also remembers how to play viola, something she learned before her illness. Researchers at Johns Hopkins are hoping Lonni Sue Johnson can help unravel some of the mysteries of memory. Why does Lonni Sue remember her mother and sister or her viola lessons but little else from her life? She's missing a hippocampus, but she can still learn new things. Lonni Sue finishes her drawing of cats and dogs and airplanes and a man holding a box tied with ribbon. It's delightful.

JOHNSON: Did it make you laugh?

RAZ: Yes.

JOHNSON: OK. That's great.

RAZ: Do you want your artwork to make people laugh?

JOHNSON: Yes, and to make people smile, because it means they're happy, and it reach them. You know, reach has the word each in it, which is really neat. Isn't that neat?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And you can see Lonni Sue Johnson's artwork at our website, npr.org. The exhibit of her work is on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore through mid-December.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: Thanks for listening. You're so nice to be interested in our family. Thank you.

RAZ: Thank you.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.