From the Doctor's Desk: Creativity and Brain Damage

October 12, 2011


By Daniel C. Potts, MD

I have seen it. It hangs on the walls of my home and office. It inspires me daily. It is the art created by one with brain injury, and it speaks for the person that remains despite affliction.

My father, Lester E. Potts, Jr., a rural Alabama lumberman, had never painted a picture prior to the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. But thanks to an art therapy program at a local dementia daycare center, Dad was given the opportunity to try something new: watercolor painting. As it turns out, this tapped into what may have been Dad's greatest reservoir of talent.

"Blue-green Collage": Lester Potts, late-stage Alzheimer's disease (note images from Lester's life: a saw, his father's hat and shoe, trees, leaves, a birdhouse, rocks, and a cross)

During a period of four years he created more than 100 watercolors that essentially documented his life. And he did this at a time when he had lost the ability to complete a sentence or dress himself independently. His work has been displayed internationally. And, to think, it was created by an individual often marginalized in our achievement-oriented society.

Lonni Sue Johnson, a well known illustrator for such publications as The New Yorker, was stricken with viral encephalitis in 2007. This devastating illness severely damaged a large part of her temporal lobes, especially the hippocampus which is critical to the formation of new memories. According to Johns Hopkins Researchers, Lonni Sue retained impressive artistic abilities despite her profound temporal lobe damage. Her art seemed to become more verbal, a finding that would not be expected given the extent and location of her injury.

Her art is currently being displayed at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The exhibit will run through December. Johns Hopkins researchers are conducting important analysis of her work.

The take-home message? Creative potential remains in many individuals with brain damage from various causes, including encephalitis, dementias such as Alzheimer's disease, stroke, epilepsy, autism, etc. Persons with such illnesses are still with us, though they may not be able to express themselves as they did before. Let us, as caregivers, seek out ways to enable self-expression and creativity, which are essential elements of personhood.

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