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The intersection of science and visual art

Janneke van Leeuwen (Founder, The Thinking Eye & PhD Researcher, UCL) introduces research that uses science, visual art and verbal communication.
One of the main motivations I had for studying how people with dementia engage with art is that what I think is one of the most beautiful things about art, is that it creates this sort of ambivalent space, in which there are no right and wrong answers. And people living with a dementia often get the sensation or experience that they’re getting it wrong. I can personally relate to that, because my mother developed young onset Alzheimer’s when she was in her early ’50s. And even though I was trained as a clinical neuropsychologist, it was only through my own mother’s process that I discovered how stressful the whole diagnostic process also was. Because you have to do all these tests.
And basically, all these tests, they set you up to fail. Because that’s how they come to a diagnosis. But that’s– that experience of failing all these tests has a huge impact on how a person feels about themselves. And it was heartbreaking having to watch my mother go through that. And it was also very painful for us as a family having to sort of see her go through that. So one of my big motivations with this study is to try to find different ways to explore how a dementia might impact on a person’s cognitive functioning, without making them feel that they’re failing or they’re getting it wrong.
In my thinking eyes project, I show people artworks from the Wellcome Collection on a computer screen. I should say that is unfortunate. I wanted to show them the real artworks. But because it’s an eye tracking study, I have to show them on a computer screen because as people are looking at the artworks, there is a camera that follows their eyes. So basically that study focuses on how people connect what they see to what they think and communicate when they’re looking at art. I’ve used Visual Thinking Strategies as the methods to structure the experiment. Visual Thinking Strategies is a facilitated group conversation that allows people to create personal meaning from an artwork that they’re looking at.
So rather than an expert telling you what the artwork is about, it sort of encourages people to share what they think is happening in that artwork. And then a trained moderator facilitates that conversation and links up to different comments that people make. So as people are looking at the artworks, they’ll be played audio recordings in which the three standard questions that are part of the VTS methods are asked. And these questions are– it’s always open ended. So the first question is, what do you think– so what’s going on in this picture? And then people get time to respond. And then the second question is asked. What do you see that makes you say that?
And then, after a while the third question is asked. What more can you find? So all these questions are designed to sort of invite people to make meaning, to go beyond just making observations, but also reason out loud what they think is happening in the narrative. People with a dementia very often don’t have fundamentally different readings of art works. And often, even like very rich poetic readings. There was one occasion of a gentleman with a form of dementia that affected his visual perception. And he was quite hesitant to comment on the artwork because he assumed that he would be getting it wrong. But the way he then, like, went on to describe the artwork was so beautiful.
And I told him that he’d actually described it in words that came very close to how the artist had described the artwork. These open-ended questions, you can apply them not only to art but basically to any situation. And a lot of the times, we sort of make assumptions about what’s going on. And instead of sort of filling in the gaps for this person and actually asking them, so, what do you think is going on? Or if they make an observation that seems odd to you, ask them, so what do you see that makes you say that? You can actually get like a really valuable insight into how their meaning-making process is related to what they’re observing.
And then it might actually not be so odd. Or you can actually gain some better understanding in how their world is and what they’re– how they’re engaging with what they’re experiencing around them.

Janneke van Leeuwen (Founder, The Thinking Eye and PhD Researcher, UCL) introduces research that uses both science, visual art and a verbal communication strategy to give an insight into the biology of dementias.

You will learn:

  • How it is hoped that research like this could help to reframe the clinical test environment for a dementia diagnosis

  • About the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) method, which has been applied for the purpose of learning more about dementia

  • How techniques such as VTS can be applied in day-to-day situations to enhance communication with people living with dementia

You will have an opportunity to try the VTS method at the end of this week in the Try-It-Yourself exercise. In the meantime, how do you feel that participating in research such as this would make you feel? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

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