Uncovering the Muse: Can we really ‘read’ art to ‘see’ the changing brain—ideas from early work looking into links between neurodegeneration and artistic activity

3 March 2023, 4.00 PM - 3 March 2023, 5.00 PM

Dr Matthew Pelowski

In-person (Psychology Common Room, Social Sciences Complex, Priory Road, BS8 1TU) and online via Zoom

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Neurodegenerative brain disorders provide a unique challenge. Although such conditions - Alzheimers’s disease, Frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease, aphasia, etcetera - have a number of underlying bases, they share a commonality in their relation to brain changes tied to progressive loss of neurons, connectivity, or other functionality in a number of regions and systems. These changes lead to a range of symptoms, from difficulty moving and using one’s body, to subtle changes in emotions; to major, disabling cognitive and behavioral impairments. As such - occurring in tandem with our currently aging world population and the realization that often these disorders may start to germinate years, and up to decades, before they are diagnosed - better understanding of the nature and of these disorders, new means for early detection, or even prevention, are a growing concern for medicine and neuroscience. As a direct result, researchers have redoubled their interest in individuals’ lives and activities. Emerging research has discovered intriguing relations between neurodegeneration and—among other factors—the types of jobs one might pursue,the hobbies we choose, even the nature of our thoughts and cognitive responses. All of which could help to open the ‘black box’ of these disorders and of our human neurobiology.

One area with particularly high promise involves visual art. The past three decades have seen a number of case studies reporting changes in incidence or nature of individuals’ visual art-making. Ranging from world-famous professionals to even lay and previously uninterested artists, these have suggested a range of intriguing modulations in artistic behavior and production. Most often, they have also been matched with the assessment of specific produced artworks from pre- and post-disorder onset or diagnosis. These images may offer a particularly salient behavioral record of structural or functional brain change, which may be fixed as a “map” on the page, but which requires a much more systematic basis and transdisciplinary approaches to really distill out or maximize this potential—can we really ‘read’ the art to see the changing brain? In this talk, I discuss some emerging work by our team to put this record of scholarship together, to begin assessing images for potential significant ties to specific disorders - focusing especially on Parkinson’s disease - and also much needed next steps for both top-down and bottom-up means of analysis on these images to truly “uncover” the putative link between disorder and artistic creativity.


Matthew Pelowski is Assistant Professor of Cognitive and Neuroaesthetics in the Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna, with a dual affiliation in the Vienna Cognitive Science Hub. He is the head of the ARTIS Lab (Art Research on Transformation of Individuals and Society). He has developed a number of interdisciplinary research programs focused specifically on the empirical study of art engagements as these impact emotions, perceptions, cognitions, the brain, and the body. He is currently the Coordinator for an EU-Horizon 2020 Consortium project TRANSFORMATIONS: Societal challenges and the arts (https://artis-h2020.eu), combining nine research institutions and societal partners in psychology/neuroscience, art education, and arts policy with a specific focus on the efficacy of arts-based initiatives for changing attitudes, behaviors, and health. He also recently started another transdisciplinary initiative, funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), and for which he is the coordinator, “Unlocking the Muse: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Understanding and Applying the Intersection of Artistic Creativity and Parkinson’s disease.


Contact information

For any queries, please contact bvi-enquiries@bristol.ac.uk.

Matthew Pelowski

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