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How a mental disorder opened up an invisible world of colour and pattern


I’ve recently started a job at London’s Science Media Centre, an organisation that tries to ensure science is reported responsibly, as senior press officer for mental health. In my new role, I’ve been swotting-up on mental health conditions and was reminded of some fantastic artwork often associated, perhaps erroneously, with schizophrenia.

Louis Wain's cats
Louis Wain's paintings are often used to show the progression of schizophrenia, but the sequence in which they were created has never been known.

The work of Louis Wain, who lived between 1860 and 1939, is frequently held up as an example of the progression of schizophrenia, and the effects of the disorder on the perceptions of an artist.

However, despite Wain’s art appearing in several psychology text books in chapters covering schizophrenia, it is unclear whether he was suffering from that particular condition. It has been suggested that Wain may instead have been suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, because his skill as a draughtsman remained plain to see throughout his illness. Diagnosis after the fact is always a sketchy business, and this suggestion may well be incorrect - one of the reported symptoms of Asperger’s is a loss of physical co-ordination.

As Wain’s condition worsened, so his pictures of cats became more abstract until, towards the end of his life, they were barely recognisable as cats at all, instead becoming intricately detailed, fractal shapes full of unnaturally (at least for a cat) bright colours. The foreknowledge that they are images of felines allows the viewer to pick up on certain shapes - the pointy triangular ears and some features of the face - but without it, you would be hard-pressed to realise these are cats.

The tale of Wain’s life is a sad one. For a time he was a successful artist, but a series of poor investment decisions left him penniless and he began to develop mental health problems in the early 20th century. He deteriorated quickly, becoming a suspicious and sometimes violent man, prone to incoherent, rambling speech. In 1924 he was incarcerated in the pauper ward at Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, south London, not far from where I live. After intervention by some famous and influential figures, including Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of the day, and H.G. Wells, Wain was transferred to more pleasant surroundings. He ended his days in Napsbury Hospital, north of London, which had a garden and, happily for Wain, a colony of cats. In this environment he was able to resume drawing, and it was here he produced some of his most spectacular work.

The similarity of Wain’s later paintings to fractals is striking. Fractal patterns exist, of course, in nature, and can be glimpsed in aerial photographs of coastlines and mountain chains, and even in the foliage of trees, but the earliest computer-generated images of idealised fractal patterns that we are familiar with today were not produced until the 1970s. There would appear to have been something about Wain’s condition that allowed him to perceive and represent these invisible natural patterns long before anyone else had seen them.

It would be fascinating to know more about the changes in Wain’s brain that opened up this world of colour and pattern, invisible to the rest of us. The story of Wain’s life may be a sad one, but his artwork has brought joy to countless others over the years, myself included.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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