What paint can tell us: A fractal analysis of neurological changes in seven artists

Neuropsychology. 2017 Jan;31(1):1-10. doi: 10.1037/neu0000303.


Objective: The notion that artistic capability increases with dementia is both novel and largely unsupported by available literature. Recent research has suggested an emergence of artistic capabilities to be a by-product of involuntary behaviour seen with dementia, as opposed to a progression in original thinking (de Souza, et al., 2010). A far more complementary explanation comes from Hannemann (2006), who suggests that art offers an outlet for dementia patients to refine and sharpen their cognitive abilities. As dementia severely impedes linguistic skills, non-verbal therapeutic methods such as painting can permit dementia patients to express themselves in a way not possible verbally. Fractal analysis has been used to determine the authenticity of major works of art. Taylor et al., (1999) found that through a fractal analysis of Jackson Pollock's paintings it was possible to distinguish authentic works from a large collection of fakes, demonstrating that when artists paint they instill within their work their own pattern of unique fractal behaviour. Can age-indexed variations in the fractal dimension of the works of artists anticipate specific cognitive deteriorations?

Method: To answer this question we analysed age-related variations in the fractal dimension of a large corpus of digital images (n = 2092) of work created by seven notable artists who experienced both normal ageing and neurodegenerative disorders.

Results: The results of our analysis showed that patterns of change in the fractal dimension of the paintings differentiated artists who suffered neurological deterioration from those of normal aging controls.

Conclusions: These findings are of importance for two reasons. Our work adds to studies that demonstrate that fractal analysis has the potential to determine the provenance of paintings. Secondly, our work suggests that may be possible to identify a-typical changes in the structure of an artist's work; changes that may be early indicators of the onset of neurological deterioration. (PsycINFO Database Record

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / diagnosis*
  • Alzheimer Disease / psychology*
  • Cognitive Aging / psychology*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Female
  • Fractals*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine in the Arts*
  • Middle Aged
  • Paintings*
  • Parkinson Disease / diagnosis*
  • Parkinson Disease / psychology*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reference Values
  • Risk Assessment