I have always held a certain fascination with the human mind. I find myself continually surprised at how integral the mind-body connection is and how little I know of brain and behaviour. I enjoy the philosophical side of the field, though I’ll leave those discussions and arguments for those that are far more eloquent than me. I am amazed at the physiological senses that mold our perception of being and most of all at the altered states of realty that result from mental illness. Mechanistically, matching the physical breakdown of cerebral processes with the deterioration of behaviour is hard for me to understand at this level of my education and I find myself immersed in stories related to the fields of Neurology and Psychiatry. I think this is why when I came across the story of William Utermohlen in the New York Times, I was completely engrossed.
The story, as reported in the NYT, is that William Utermohlen was an artist who in 1995 was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a progressively degenerative neurological disorder which eventually leads to dementia through the gradual loss of neurons in the cerebral cortex. In essence, the area of the brain responsible for memory dies, and with it there is also a loss of learned skills as well as spatial and temporal disorientation. The disease eventually leads to a host of behavioural changes and motor abnormalities, including complete incontinence.
The NYT article states that “when William learned that he had Alzheimer’s disease he began to try and understand it by painting himself.” The paintings which were originally quite detailed and realistic show change to a more abstract form as the disease progressed year to year. The art portrays how William’s sense of space and his ability to translate his world to the canvass gradually begins to slip. It’s hard as an observer not to project a certain sadness on the paintings as one begins to realize how much of the artist’s ability has changed forever and how diminished his world has become. Rarely does one get such a glimpse into the patient’s perspective such as this and it is only through William’s artistic ability that outsiders can experience this sense of loss first hand.
[The original article, “Self-Portraits Chronicle a Descent Into Alzheimer’s”,was published in the New York Times on 2006/10/24 by DENISE GRADY]