Lonnie Sue Johnson, an accomplished artist, is one of a small number of individuals who have sustained severe damage to the hippocampus. Several of these individuals have been studied by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists over the past half century as a means to understanding the role of the hippocampus in cognitive function. The most well-known of these was HM, who was studied over a period of roughly 50 years, and whose case serves as the foundation for modern theories of the role of the hippocampus in memory formation (Corkin, 2002).
Our research explores the effects of severe brain damage on perceptual, cognitive, and aesthetic representation in the mind and brain through a unique and extensive case study of Lonni Sue who in 2007 sustained severe brain damage due to viral encephalitis. Recent structural brain imaging shows that Lonni Sue has virtually no remaining hippocampal tissue, making her a relatively rare case to study. Moreover, her status as an artist makes her case even more unusual, and allows a unique window into the effects of brain damage on the creative process. The insights gained through our studies should ultimately help answer questions about how the artistic process is disrupted by such damage, and how it can proceed in the absence of key cognitive functions.
Our research focused on three key aspects of Lonni Sue's cognitive profile. First, like many hippocampal patients, Lonnie Sue has retrograde amnesia for autobiographical information as well as a wide range of non-autobiographical knowledge, finding that she has widespread deficits that even encompass areas for which she had pre-illness expertise (e.g., art, music, history). Second, Lonnie Sue's capacity for new learning, finding that she has virtually no ability to form new explicit word-object associations. In collaboration with scientists at Princeton University, research has begun to explore her ability to carry out statistical learning, a form of implicit learning common to normal infants and adults alike. Third, structural and functional brain imaging studies have been completed, due to the collaboration with scientists at Princeton, and the precise extent of the brain damage has been documented. Her brain responds to traditional localizers for objects and places, but not (to date) faces; there is a presence of neural adaptation to objects, suggesting a possible mechanism for new learning.
Dr. Landau's scientific research addresses the nature of human spatial understanding, the nature of language, and the relationship between the two during early development and in adulthood. Her principal theses are that, in humans, each of these systems is highly specialized, that evidence of this specialization appears early in development and under widely varying conditions of development, and that the two systems also have a natural affinity that allows them to communicate—supporting our unique human ability to talk about our spatial experience. Research exemplifying this thesis has been carried out with children who are developing under typical circumstances, as well as those who develop under unusual conditions such as congenital blindness or genetic abnormalities. Dr. Landau's research on the latter has focused on the spatial and linguistic understandings of people with Williams syndrome—a relatively rare genetic deficit in which people have very strong language but severely impaired spatial abilities.
Watch "Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist's Journey Through Amnesia"
A Johns Hopkins Video about Lonni Sue Johnson with Dr. Barbara Landau and Dr. Michael McCloskey
Read "A Few Strokes of the Past in an Artist Who Lost Her Memory"
An article from the Ney York TImes on Lonni Sue Johnson
Listen to "How Crossword Puzzles Unlocked An Artist's Memory"
NPR's All Things Considered on Lonnie Sue Johnson