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Signs of dementia, Parkinson's revealed in the brushstrokes of famous painters, study says

Signs of dementia, Parkinson's revealed in the brushstrokes of famous painters, study says

Friday December 30, 2016

Change in the brushstrokes of painters over time could be a subtle sign of cognitive decline, according to a new study.

The research team, led by Alex Forsythe, senior psychology lecturer at the University of Liverpool, analyzed more than 2,000 paintings from seven famous artists, including Canadian Indigenous painter Norval Morrisseau who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. They studied artists’ “fractals” — in other words, the unique and repeated patterns of an artist’s brushstrokes within a painting.

She found subtle changes in these fractals in the mid-life works of painters like Morrisseau, as well as Salvador Dali and Willem de Kooning. Dali suffered from Parkinson’s disease, while de Kooning developed dementia.

Forsythe tells As It Happens about the findings of her new and controversial research that was published in the journal Neuropsychology. 

Rideau Hall Androgyny 20080918 TOPIX

The researchers found a “changing in the structure of his brushstrokes” in the paintings Norval Morrisseau painted during midlife before he would even be aware of his neurological problems. (The Canadian Press)

“What we’re seeing are changing in the structure of his brushstrokes and we’re seeing these from midlife,” Forsythe tells guest host Helen Mann. “Possibly before he was even aware that he was developing any kind of neural problems.”

“I think the biggest contribution it’s making is to help people to think differently. We don’t really know an awful lot about the brain compared to what we know about the human body.” – Alex Forsythe, senior psychology lecturer, University of Liverpool

She found significant changes in Dali’s works. In the Persistence of Memory, one of his most famous paintings (often referred to as “melting clocks”) “you can see areas of fractal constants” in the mountains, clouds and water.

“There’s a kind of rhythm that’s in his painting…but if you look at his later works, the fractal content is greatly reduced,” she said.

“He still uses repeating patterns in those later pieces of art, but they tend to be geometric. So he used grids and spheres to present the message that he’s trying to direct. But that fineness that comes from the repeating rhythm of the fractals has greatly reduced.”

But what exactly are fractals?

Fractals are mathematical sets of never-ending geometric patterns across greatly different scales. They exist in the coastline, the way trees branch out, snowflakes and even within the human body.

Fractal analysis has also been used, controversially, to try an authenticate various works of art. 

Forsythe says that her findings show a change in the fractal dimensions over these artists’ careers.

The decline in fractal patterns from those suffering from Parkinson’s, such as Dali, or those with dementia such as de Kooning, were contrasted with other famous painters in the “control group”, such as Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet,  whose work changed over their lives but whose fractal dimensions increased rather than decreased.


An example of fractal patterns in nature (Pixabay)

For example, while Pablo Picasso’s art evolved and changed dramatically over the course of his life, Forsythe argues that the fractals did not decline in his more abstract works.

“[We’ve been able to determine that he had his normal range, his handwriting didn’t change,” she said. “He still may have played with different ideas and constructs but the way he physically interacted with the canvas was predictable.”

We’ve been to the moon, and we still know very little about the brain. Anything that can drive new directions in research into neurological problems is very helpful. -Alex Forsythe, senior psychology lecturer, University of Liverpool


Salvador Dali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his seventies but Alex Fortsythe’s research found an increase in “fractal dimension” in middle age followed by a sharp decline starting from their late 50s. (AP)

So what does this mean?

While she says it won’t become an early diagnostic tool, it could help guide future research.

“I think the biggest contribution it’s making is to help people to think differently about new avenues to research because we don’t really know an awful lot about the brain compared to what we know about the human body,” she said.

“We traveled our earth, we’ve been to the moon and want to go to Mars and we still know very little proportionally about the brain…So anything that can drive new directions in research into neurological problems is really very helpful.”

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Recommended article: The Guardian’s Summary of Julian Assange’s Interview Went Viral and Was Completely False.

CBC | Health News

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