In 2007, when artist Heide Pfüetzner was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), she considered it a “personal catastrophe”. Given the effects of ALS, which include widespread muscle atrophy that affects mobility, speaking, swallowing, and breathing, this is hardly surprising. And yet, just six years later, an exhibit of her paintings made their debut; all created by her mind and a computer.
Known as “Brain on Fire,” the exhibit took place on Easdale, a small island off the west coast of Scotland, this past July. Those who visited the exhibit were treated to a vibrant display of colorful digital paintings that she made using a computer program that lets her control digital brushes, shapes, and colors by concentrating on specific points on the screen.
Pfüetzner, a former English teacher from Leipzig, Germany, “brain paints” using software developed by the University of Wurzburg and German artist Adi Hösle, along with equipment from biomedical engineering firm Gtec. Thanks to the equipment and software, Pfüetzner is able to paint using two monitors and an electrode-laden electroencephalogram (EEG) cap without having to move her hands or leave her chair.
While one screen displays the program’s matrix of tools, another functions like a canvas, showing the picture as it evolves. Images of the various tools flash at different times, and Pfüetzner focuses on the tool she wants to select, causing her brain activity to spike. The computer determines which option she’s focusing on by comparing the timing of the brainwaves to the timing of the desired flashing tool.
Relying on a Startnext crowdfunding campaign, Pfüetzner was able to raise the $6,500 she needed to hold the exhibit in Easdale. The money she raised through the campaign went toward printing and framing her work, as well as transporting her and her nursing team, as well as the medical equipment she needs, to Easdale, where the exhibit ran until July 25th.
Pfüetzner admits that prior to becoming ill, she was not too fond of technical equipment and did not like working with computers. But since she became acquainted with the new technology, an EEG cap and brain computer interface have become her everyday companions. Much like a canvas, brush and paint palate, “brain painting” has become second nature to her.
For the first time, this project gives me the opportunity to show the world that the ALS has not been the end of my life… BCI is a pioneer-making technology which allows me to create art and therefore, reconnect to my old life.
For some time now, Brain to Computer Interface (BCI) research has been pushing the realm of the possible, giving a man with locked-in syndrome the ability to tweet using eye movement, or a paraplegic woman the ability to control a robotic arm. And thanks to research team like that working at the University of Wurzburg’s labs, the range of BCI applications for the paralyzed are quickly beyond text input and into the realm of visual art.
Though the life expectancy of an ALS patient averages about two to five years from the time of diagnosis, according to the ALS Association, some ALS patients, including physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, have far outlived that prognosis. given her obvious inspiration and passion, not to mention talent, I sincerely hope Pfüetzner has a long and productive career!
And be sure to enjoy this video from Heide Pfüetzner’s Startnext page. It contains a personal address in German (sadly, I couldn’t find an English translation), followed by members of the University of Wurzburg team explaining how “brain painting” works: