Sunday, October 30, 2005

Art as therapy

I think I'm particularly interested in the comment about "procedural memory."

At the Modern, which plans to expand the Alzheimer's program next year to families and other care providers, the effects of the tours are often striking and seem to speak - in a world of reproduction - to the power of the original. (For now, the tours focus on representational art, on the theory that it's an easier touchstone for narratives and memories. There are no Pollocks, for example.)

<>Besides improving patients' moods for hours and even days, the tours seem to demonstrate that the disease, while diminishing sufferers' abilities in so many ways, can also sometimes spark interpretive and expressive powers that had previously lay hidden. Mr. Rosen, for instance, who had little interest in art when he was younger, talked with ease and inventiveness about the composition of Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy."


One avenue of thinking about both music and art, he said, is that it engages parts of the brain that remain intact long after the onset of dementia and that have to do with procedural memory - the kind that governs routine activities like walking, eating, shaving. One musician whom Dr. Sacks has observed has almost entirely lost his memory, but his musical memory is intact. "Nietzsche used to say that we listened to music with our muscles," he said. The question is whether a similar mechanism is at work in making and looking at art.

The National Institute on Aging held a conference in Alexandria, Va., last year to allow researchers to compare notes on Alzheimer's and artistic activity. One speaker, Bruce L. Miller, clinical director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said he believed that even sitting and looking at art is much more active than most people assume, and such activity could have positive effects on damaged brains.

"There's a lot of general excitement in this area, but not much known about it," he said later in an interview. "I think there is, tucked in there, a research question that really hasn't been answered yet, which is: by looking at or making art, is there a way to improve the brains of those with Alzheimer's?"


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