Friday, 30 August 2013

The value of art in expanding our minds

Sculpture by Mary Hecht

You may have noticed there's a lot of emphasis on science thesedays, but a recent study by neurophysicians at the Memory Clinic at St Michael's Hospital in Toronto demonstrates the value, endurance and mysterious role of art in enriching human lives.

The lead author, Dr Luis Fornazzari, reports the case of Mary Hecht, an internationally renowned sculptor who died in April 2013 with vascular dementia, whom he cites as "a remarkable example of how artistic abilities are preserved in spite of degeneration of the brain and a loss in the more mundane, day-to-day memory functions."

Because of her neurological condition, Hecht had lost the ability to conduct a normal conversation, remember words she was asked to recall and even illustrate the time on a clock. But to the astonishment of Dr Fornazzari and his team, she was able to quickly sketch an accurate portrait of of a research student from the Clinic, as well as other people and objects from memory. While drawing, she was able to speak eloquently and without hesitation, in contrast to her prevailing level of functionality.

This shows, at the very least, the unique terrain occupied by art in our brains and Dr Fornazzari concludes that "art should be taught to everyone. It's better than many medications and is as important as mathematics and history."

For those of us who have friends or loved ones with vascular dementia, this work offers hope, in that so often, activities which once gave pleasure, like cooking or gardening or basic activities of daily living, can no longer be undertaken. Could it be that providing them with paper and pencils and painting sets may open the window to freedom and joy, even if for a limited time? It is possible Hecht's extraordinary talent may have been part of the key, but it's certainly worth a try.

No matter how alluring the promises of a life filled with logic and scientific discovery, we dismiss the value of art at our peril. In all its forms, it points to a place where there are no easy answers, touching upon states which we can only feel and barely describe. Our brain is a brain of two halves - let's not succumb to the seductive temptations of a life lived on one side.

Written by Jacqui Hogan

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