Neurological Disorders: Illustrated?

Tonight I attended a lecture at Salem’s membership library, the Salem Athenaeum. Dr. David E. Thaler, Neurologist-in-Chief; Chairman and Professor, Department of Neurology, Tufts University School of Medicine (phew!), shared with us his incredible initiative to create a more welcoming space for patients at the Neurology Center at Tufts University by adding creative pieces of art reflecting neurological disorders, but in a mainly unscientific way.

Here are some of my favorite pieces included in the exhibit (Descriptions are a good ol’ copy/paste from

  • This Machine Kills Fascists“: Woody Guthrie used his music to champion the poor and downtrodden and bring attention to political causes and social injustices. Growing up during the Great Depression, Guthrie lived a wandering lifestyle, traveling and living all over the country, producing music that connected with the everyday man who was down on his luck. Guthrie helped to popularize folk music, bringing the genre commercial success. In the late 1940s, he began to show signs of Huntington’s Disease, a condition later understood to have been inherited from his mother.

10 Guthrie LOC_275x343.jpg

  • Alice in Wonderland“: John Tenniel brought Lewis Carroll’s books to life with his engaging, and often humorous, illustrations. A political cartoonist at Punch magazine, Tenniel’s sharp style was well-suited to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His illustrations became famous around the world as the novel and its sequel proved to be great successes—as they still are today. Here, Alice finds herself in a room that is much too small, or she is simply much too big. Named for this moment in the story, “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” is a condition where one’s sense of body image and perceived scale is altered. This is thought to be an unusual variant of a migranious aura; Lewis Carroll himself was known to suffer from migraines.

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  • The Creation of Adam“: “The Creation of Adam was painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling for Pope Julius II by the Renaissance master Michelangelo. Instantly recognizable today, God’s outstretched arm reaches toward Adam, about to fill him with life. An extensive restoration effort in the 1980s led to a renewed interest by scholars in deciphering both the meaning of the ceiling as a whole and the individual significance of this moment. In 1990, Frank Meshberger, MD, proposed that Michelangelo (known to have had an interest in anatomy and to have performed human dissections) deliberately painted God’s cloak to resemble a human brain in profile. Dr. Meshberger argued that Michelangelo was intending to convey through this imagery that God was about to give Adam humankind’s most valuable trait: intelligence.
  • creation.gif

In honor of one of my beloveds I going to throw in a Lily Allen video song because it’s my 100th post and why the hell not: Dr. Thaler, presenter, asked us to consider whether Michelangelo did this because humankind was God’s best creation, or because God was humankind’s best creation. 

What are your thoughts about this? Email me –

Anyway, I was awed by the thought that went into the selections of art and the consideration of various neurological diseases – from FDR to Lou Gehrig (a Boston legend), from cult classic fantasy writers to practically unknown artist from ancient Egypt, an amazing number of situations were covered. The art historian graduate student who did much of the research & writing wasn’t present so we couldn’t understand her decision making, but as I thought about the decisions some questions struck me.

Dr. Thaler made note of famous artist Vincent van Gogh’s life in stages that were normal or “maybe” epilepsy or bipolar disorder. This mention of “normal” as we discussed a series of remarkable people and their “unnormalness” (pardon my created word) as a way of demonstrating neurological disorders perked my senses. My empathetic heart said, “Wait, hold up. Who decided which tendency is NORMAL?”.

After his self-mutilation (the removal of his ear by his own person), van Gogh’s neighbors called him “fou roux” (the redheaded madman…) and testified that he was unsafe around the public. Van Gogh listened to their concerns and self-admitted himself to asylum (a building in which many of his famous works were created).

While at the asylum van Gogh was treated with foxglove  – a natural remedy used to treat heart problems (but not epilepsy or bipolar disorder, one or both of which he was being treated for…).  Consider this: an overdose of foxglove can cause individuals to see an abundance of the color of yellow – a favored color of van Gogh as an artist and many modern interpreters believe this might have led to his use of the color in his paintings.

Dr. Thaler made note of the phases between van Gogh’s “normal” days and his “not” normal days – he asked us to consider whether we would be able to appreciate this amazing art of he’d never been admitted to the asylum. I take issue with this – Who decided what was “normal” and what wasn’t? How was this determined? Is someone experiencing epilepsy or bipolar episodes “not normal?” If someone isn’t “normal” and suffers in their life with self-mutilation or depression should we ignore their plight and only appreciate what they’ve done for our own pleasure? 

Um, no. 

During the Q&A I asked:

“You mentioned ‘normal’ when talking about van Gogh. You then reviewed a series of remarkable people. As you pulled pieces together for this exhibit, was the team purposeful about representation from various ‘normals’ – for example regarding skin color and sexual orientation.” 

The response was basically, “Oh, no. We didn’t do that.”

From what I understand, because he is a neurologist he only thinks about brains and spines – never skin color or orientation.

And all I could think is “I don’t see color” and how detrimental this statement can be. 

I know so many wonderful people who use this phrase and don’t understand how it erases the horrific histories of indigenous and African people in America. Their hearts are in the right place – they want to be kind and thoughtful, but they sometimes misjudge and unintentionally ignore important feelings of others around them.

A “Neurologist-in-Chief; Chairman and Professor” at a world renown school of neurology didn’t consider representation during a very time consuming and expensive art project undertaken at his school of residence. This is certainly no “knock” on his education – in any way whatsoever. But it’s a knock on our society for not making representation a more important part of every conversation we have.

We can’t be “color blind” and assume cis/white/male is “default”. People of Color need representation. Women need representation. Non-binary people need representation.

We need to do better.


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