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Saturday, May 7, 2016

Charles Bonnet Syndrome

Charles Bonnet Syndrome. This is a little what it's like
What happens when an artist (or anyone else, for that matter) suffers from a combination of cataracts and macular degeneration? For all intents and purposes, the person becomes blind, yet the individual's mind is in denial. Actually, old age, glaucoma, diabetes, or several other types of damage to the eyes or optic pathways can cause what scientists call Charles Bonnet (pronounced bo-NAY) Syndrome (CBS). The results are hallucinations, intermixed with whatever degree of eyesight the victim may retain. One of the main characteristic of these hallucinations is that they are usually "Lilliputian" (that is, the characters or objects are smaller than normal). The most common hallucinations are of faces or cartoons. Sufferers understand that the hallucinations are not real, that they are only visual. They do not involve any other senses.

The Charles Bonnet Syndrome is named after the Swiss naturalist,
who noticed his nearly blind grandfather was seeing visions.
Although I seem to vaguely recall hearing of this phenomena someplace, it was brought to my notice by my optometrist as he was examining my eyes the other day (no, I don't hallucinate). Other than the fact blind artist are usually unemployed, what does Charles Bonnet Syndrome have to do with art? It comes down to the fact that legally blind artists do, sometimes, create art (or try to). The creative impulse is incredibly strong in such people. And, inasmuch as the brain refuses to accept their blindness, it instead conjures up its own images, and apparently intermixes them with real images (top). This tendency seems to be especially true during the first few month after significant loss of eyesight.
Frank Arnall displays drawing his wife created in colored pencil
of some of her Charles Bonnet hallucinations.
Augusta Arnall of South Ogden, Utah, had Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Her husband, Frank, said the couple at first thought the hallucinations were related to her Parkinson's Disease; but a trip to a specialist revealed something quite different. It took the doctor about five minutes to tell them Augusta had Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS). Returning home, they started doing some research confirming the specialist's diagnosis. For months, the hallucinations continued and eventually, Frank Arnall says, his wife knew she had to release the images inside her head. Frank Arnall recalls that, “One day she said to me, ’I feel like I want to draw these people and I think I can." Augusta had always been interested in art, but only to the point where she bought it. Her husband explained, "I would say she was an art enthusiast; but insofar as creating anything, she’d never done anything like that before." Despite having no formal training, Augusta Arnall began to draw. Her first work was a sketch, but the pieces quickly began to employ details and color.
Maddening, but not madness.
Frank Arnall says his wife’s work conveys a wide array of emotions, from the anger and sadness that came when she would ponder why she was stricken with disease, to feelings of “extreme wonderment” that stemmed from witnessing the distinctive images created by her brain. He said the work provided his wife with a “tremendous form of therapy” even as her health continued to decline. “She was happy, she was at peace, and she was doing something she felt was important,” he said. “She was truly expressing herself.” Augusta Arnall's final six years on earth were far from easy. Yet her art helped her produce what was, perhaps, her life’s most important work--a group of about 25 pastel crayon drawings that were the manifestation of her vivid CBS hallucinations. When Augusta Sue Arnall died in late 2015, her failing health had progressed to such a debilitating stage that basic human functions like blinking and swallowing had become impossible.

Charles Bonnet Syndrome drawings.
Augusta Arnall's work has been shown at Pandemonium Art Gallery in Ogden for the past month. For a few months Augusta drew her visions with color pastels. Her husband explained that after she started drawing the visions they evolved into darker, more scary visions. Jane Font, owner of Pandemonium Gallery, describes Augusta Arnall’s story and the art tied to it as “completely moving.” “Art with a story behind it is so much more interesting than art with no story,” Font said. “When Frank came in, I was moved by the art and the story. I wanted to help him tell it.” Frank Arnall approached Font after he read a newspaper article that mentioned her studio. He said he wants to, not only bring attention to his late wife’s unique abilities, but to also shine light on the disease behind them. “There is a lot of stigma involving (CBS),” Arnall says. “People get regarded as crazy when they describe their hallucinations." Arnall hopes that people will see her art, hear her story, and thus open the door for others to get help. An estimated two-million people in Britain alone experience often bizarre visual hallucinations caused by Charles Bonnet syndrome.

What a CBS hallucination sufferer might see.


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