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Academic Minute

Dr. Barbara Landau, Johns Hopkins University - Art and the Brain


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Barbara Landau of Johns Hopkins University reveals what she has learned about how the brain creates art from her research with a talented artists working to recover from a brain injury.

Barbara Landau is the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins University. Her lab's work focuses on language learning, spatial representation, and the relationship between the two. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

About Dr. Landau

Dr. Barbara Landau - Art and the Brain

How do the basic cognitive functions carried out in the brain support our creative and artistic selves? We have had an unusual opportunity to probe this question by carrying out research on an artist-- Lonni Sue Johnson-- who suffered significant brain damage in 2007 due to viral encephalitis. Before her illness, Lonni Sue was a highly successful illustrator who created covers for The New Yorker, pieces for the New York Times, and many other important clients, including Housing and Urban Development, I.B.M, and Lotus. Her illness caused extensive damage to both sides of the hippocampus-- a brain structure known to be critical in the formation of new memories. She also sustained damage to her left temporal lobe, a region thought to be very important for language.

After her illness, Lonni Sue became severely amnesic: She can no longer remember significant events in her past-- including, for example, her father's death or her 10-year marriage. She is also severely impaired in the ability to form new memories based on daily life events. For example, when we asked her to copy a complex geometric figure that was placed in front of her, she did so, and produced a perfect copy. But one minute later, she could not draw any of the elements of the figure; ten minutes beyond that, she did not remember having copied anything at all.

In the face of these severe deficits, Lonni Sue has recovered ways of creating art. Intruigingly, Lonni Sue's post-illness art draws extensively on language; she now creates art using word grids that serve as anchors to her art. Her post-illness art remains as visually clever as it was before her illness; and it even includes some of the signature icons from her pre-illness art. Research on her enduring cognitive capacities, as well as her severe impairments are allowing us to examine the effects of brain damage on human perceptual and cognitive abilities, on memory, and on the implications of these for the artist's creativity.

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