What Parkinson’s disease patients reveal about experiencing art

Penn Medicine researchers find impaired motor function like that experienced by people with Parkinson’s disease impacts art perception and valuation.

Art appreciation is considered essential to human experience. While taste in art varies depending on the individual, cognitive neuroscience can provide clues about how viewing art affects our neural systems, and evaluate how these systems inform our valuation of art. For instance, one study shows that viewing art activates motor areas, both in clear representations of movement, like Adam and Eve in Michelangelo’s “Expulsion from Paradise,” and in implied movement through brush strokes, like in Franz Kline’s gestural paintings.

 Abstract painting by Piet Mondrian hanging in a gallery.
Composition No. 11 by Piet Mondrian, Albright-Knox Gallery. (Image: Sailko/Nov. 8, 2016)

Altered neural functioning, like that experienced in patients with Parkinson’s disease, changes the way art is both perceived and valued, according to a study published in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience by researchers from the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the Perelman School of Medicine. They found that people with neurological motor dysfunction demonstrated decreased experiences of motion in abstract art and enhanced preferences for high-motion art, compared to a healthy control group.

“People can experience movement in abstract art, even without implied movement, like brush strokes,” says author Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology and director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. “These representations of movement systematically affect people’s aesthetic evaluations, whether they are healthy individuals or people with Parkinson’s disease.”

The study examined the aesthetic experiences of 43 people with Parkinson’s disease and 40 controls in the same age group. The subjects made motion and aesthetics judgements about 10 Jackson Pollock and 10 Piet Mondrian paintings. Using seven-point Likert scales, participants rated the paintings along nine categories: liking, beauty, interest, familiarity, motion, complexity, balance, color-hue, and color-saturation. The color dimensions served as relatively objective control ratings.

People with Parkinson’s disease demonstrated stable and internally consistent preferences for abstract art, but their perception of movement in the paintings was diminished compared to controls. This finding provides evidence that the brain’s motor system is involved in translating nonrepresentational information from static visual cues in the image into representations of movement.

This story is by Kelsey Odorczyk. Read more at Penn Medicine News.