As Alzheimer's disease wipes out a person's identity, their taste in art can remain stubbornly, wonderfully, intact. Andrea Halpern and colleagues hope their finding will bring encouragement to carers of people with the disease.
Seventeen healthy older adults and sixteen older adults with probable Alzheimer's disease were asked to place three sets of eight art post-cards in order of preference. One set depicted representational paintings (e.g. Hopper's People in the Sun), another set depicted quasi-representational paintings (e.g. Picasso's Weeping Woman), while the final set featured abstract art (e.g. Mondrian's Composition).
Two weeks later, the same participants were asked to once again arrange the cards in order of preference. There was relatively little change in the order the cards were put in, regardless of the type of art, and remarkably, the participants with Alzheimer's showed as much stability in their preferences as the healthy participants.
A second experiment with 20 controls and 20 Alzheimer's patients repeated the exact same procedure except that a recognition test for the pictures was included at the second session. The memory test showed that the patients had completely forgotten the pictures and yet, as in the first experiment, their aesthetic preference for the art showed the same stability as did the healthy participants'.
"In judging artworks," the researchers concluded, "people with and without dementia really do know what they like."
The researchers speculated that art preference may remain intact in people with Alzheimer's because aesthetic taste is based on procedural, implicit mental processes rather than the explicit, declarative processes that are so devastated by the disease. However, the patients tested here had mild dementia, so more research is needed to establish whether art preference is also preserved in people with more severe dementia.
HALPERN, A., LY, J., ELKIN-FRANKSTON, S., O'CONNOR, M.G. (2008). "I Know What I Like": Stability of aesthetic preference in alzheimer's patients. Brain and Cognition, 66(1), 65-72. DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2007.05.008