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.

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  • 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.
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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.


What about when you don’t have time to read?

You know what I love when I don’t have some time to read? Listen to audiobooks & podcasts! I listen to audiobooks & podcasts when I’m driving, doing the dishes, folding the laundry, walking to work, and whenever I can. I get so excited when I can check out a new podcast!

Audible – Audible is awesome if you want to purchase an audiobook and keep it forever and ever. We often download Audible books for long car trips with our little girl who is now 5. It’s great to be able to listen to an entire book for a 4 hour trip there then 4 hours back. Some people don’t love Audible because it’s owned by Amazon and we all know the best place to buy books is your local bookseller, but Audible can be a great resource for when that doesn’t work for you. (ALSO! Because you are awesome and read my musings, Audible wants to hook you up with a free audiobook! Use this link to check it out!). I love listening to historical fiction as audiobooks (and real books, too!). My favorite to date is the Other Boleyn Girl, which I’ve listened to at least twice!

Libby – Speaking of getting books locally… Libby is hooked up to your LIBRARY CARD! How amazing is that? You can borrow books the same way you do by walking in to the library, but you do it using your phone! Audiobooks and a selection of “print” books are available (including children’s books!). #winteriscoming and soon I’ll just want to be snuggled up at home in my favorite blanket. When I finally get through my to-read-pile, I’m turning to Libby.

And finally, here are my most favorite podcasts!




Myths & Legends

Strange & Unusual Podcast


And of course… HistoryCast!

And, because she’s the best ever, I’m including a photo of Poe listening to the Strange & Unusual Podcast with me while I fold laundry.

I’m an imposter.

Imposter syndrome.

It sneaks up on all of us. One day you’re walking along, being all “whatever” and suddenly it hits you – Who do I think I am? Why do I think I’m allowed to partake in whateverthethingisyouwerealreadydoinganyway?


I’m not in anyway an official historian, but I find the history of Salem to be a fascinating world and I LOVE reading about it. If you know me at all, you already know that I love dissecting cultural studies about the history of women healers – midwifes, women who used herbs to heal, stuff like that – and the political ramifications of the patriarchy on their work. Because of this passion, I recently had an incredible opportunity to start a history podcast. The whole thing happened kind of by accident, but I am obsessed. Each time I sit at the mic I wonder, “How can I possibly be allowed to do this? I’m not an expert! I don’t know what I’m doing!”… then the next topic comes up and I can’t wait to sit down and record again.

I’m also not an official writer – I’m not published, I don’t write much of interest to anyone but myself and maybe my loves who are the most amazing supporters of every crazy idea I’ve ever had. That said, I am considering submitting a gothic short story to a local women owned publishing company – mostly because AHHH! LOCAL WOMEN OWNED PUBLISHING COMPANY! But… I’ll likely submit under a different name. #youknowjustincase.


For real…. Just take the fricken donut, robyn. Why is this so hard? Why is it so easy to imagine everyone else thinking you an imposter and not actually do the thing?

img_94372018 is the year of “life.” 18 is lucky in Chinese culture.  The Hebrew word for life (“chai”) has the value of 18. In Tarot, 18 is associated with the moon – a symbol of mystery & intuition. It’s time. This year needs to be the year I stop being afraid of my creativity, my knowledge, of my writing. Stop being afraid.

It’s time to step out of the proverbial comfort zones and do the things. Read more. Write More. Podcast more. Just make stuff – create stuff – be creative.

How will you live the live in this year of 18? What will you do to be creative? Help me stay motivated by sharing your stories.