Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 07 March 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00107

An island of stability: art images and natural scenes – but not natural faces – show consistent esthetic response in Alzheimer’s-related dementia

  • 1Department of Psychology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY, USA
  • 2Department of Psychological Basic Research and Research Methods, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) causes severe impairments in cognitive function but there is evidence that aspects of esthetic perception are somewhat spared, at least in early stages of the disease. People with early Alzheimer’s-related dementia have been found to show similar degrees of stability over time in esthetic judgment of paintings compared to controls, despite poor explicit memory for the images. Here we expand on this line of inquiry to investigate the types of perceptual judgments involved, and to test whether people in later stages of the disease also show evidence of preserved esthetic judgment. Our results confirm that, compared to healthy controls, there is similar esthetic stability in early stage AD in the absence of explicit memory, and we report here that people with later stages of the disease also show similar stability compared to controls. However, while we find that stability for portrait paintings, landscape paintings, and landscape photographs is not different compared to control group performance, stability for face photographs – which were matched for identity with the portrait paintings – was significantly impaired in the AD group. We suggest that partially spared face-processing systems interfere with esthetic processing of natural faces in ways that are not found for artistic images and landscape photographs. Thus, our work provides a novel form of evidence regarding face-processing in healthy and diseased aging. Our work also gives insights into general theories of esthetics, since people with AD are not encumbered by many of the semantic and emotional factors that otherwise color esthetic judgment. We conclude that, for people with AD, basic esthetic judgment of artistic images represents an “island of stability” in a condition that in most other respects causes profound cognitive disruption. As such, esthetic response could be a promising route to future therapies.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, face perception, esthetics, natural scenes, esthetic stability, art perception, memory

Citation: Graham DJ, Stockinger S and Leder H (2013) An island of stability: art images and natural scenes – but not natural faces – show consistent esthetic response in Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Front. Psychol. 4:107. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00107

Received: 30 November 2012; Accepted: 15 February 2013;
Published online: 07 March 2013.

Edited by:

Mark W. Greenlee, University of Regensburg, Germany

Reviewed by:

Yuka Sasaki, Brown University, USA
Camilo J. Cela-Conde, Universidad de las Islas Baleares, Spain

Copyright: © 2013 Graham, Stockinger and Leder. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Daniel J. Graham, Department of Psychology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY 14456, USA. e-mail: graham@hws.edu

Back to top