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What is an aesthetic view of the world?

Prof Julian Hughes (University of Bristol) explains what he means by using an aesthetic approach to people living with dementia.
I’ve used the notion of the aesthetic view of the world in some of my writings. I suppose what I’ve really been thinking about is what I’ve termed an aesthetic approach to people with dementia. And this reflects my feeling that we need to understand what it is to be a person in broad terms. So there’s a kind of particular thing, which is that– and this is slightly– of course, this is slightly sort of simplifying how the world is and how we are. But you can approach the world in a very cognitive way, so in terms of thinking, in terms of rationality, and so forth, in terms of understanding things.
And if you just approach people with dementia in that way, then they’re going to look deficient, because they’re not going to be able to understand some things if they’ve started to lose their understanding of language. They’re not going to be able to remember some things. They’re not going to be able to put things together. So you end up with a view of people as being in some ways defective.
Just to go off onto a slight tangent here, one of the people who’s greatly inspired me is a psychologist from Georgetown in Washington, called Steve Sabat, and he’s talked about cognitive testing of people, and so that actually when we do that– so when for instance, people like me, see someone and we give them tests and ask them what day it is, who the prime minister is, and so forth– he says that what we’re doing is we’re indulging in defectology. So we’re sort of hammering it home to them that they can’t remember the date, they can’t remember the name of their grandchildren, they can’t remember all sorts of things.
And so that is one way of approaching people in that sort of highly kind of cognitive rational way. And so it’s a way of approaching people with dementia so that they fail in some sense. But if you have a broader notion of what it is to be a human being, then you can approach people in another way. Aesthetics tends to be defined as the– it’s to do with the philosophy of the beautiful. So it’s asking questions like, what is beauty, and how do we define beauty, and so on.
But there is an older notion, an older definition of aesthetics, which was interestingly around at the time of the end of the 1700s, so just around the time that the Romantic poets were coming onto the scene. And so that notion is a notion that stresses how we perceive things through the senses. And so you have Keats, for instance, saying, “O for a life of sensations, rather than of thoughts!” which in a way captures the sort of point that I’m making. So it might be that a person with dementia can’t communicate very well, can’t remember. And yet it’s still absolutely open that they might have all sorts of other feelings about things, all sorts of emotions.
And it might be that you can connect with them more at this kind of intuitive, emotional level than at some sort of rational level. So that’s what I would want to encourage by this notion of an aesthetic approach to people.

In this step Prof Julian Hughes (RICE Professor of Old Age Psychiatry, University of Bristol) explains what he means by using an aesthetic approach to people living with dementia.

You will learn about:

  • The dangers of clinical assessments focusing on ‘defectology’

  • What is meant by the ‘broad’ notion of a human being

  • What it is meant by the idea of an aesthetic view of the world, and how this applies to the dementias

Feel free to watch this video again if you find the ideas challenging or completely new. Having thought about the concepts, how does it make you think and feel about dementia? Share your reflections in the comments.

CREDITS We would like to thank the Dementia Research Centre for providing supplementary footage for this video.
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Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

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