Babies prefer Picasso

Psychologists who study art appreciation have their work cut out. How does one begin to untangle cultural influences from more basic perceptual factors - the cache from the contours? Well one way is to study babies, because they're obviously too young to know about cultural fads and artistic reputations.

Trix Cacchione and her team at the University of Zurich presented nine-month old babies with paintings by the cubist painter Picasso and the impressionist Monet. Their first aim was to see if the babies could tell the difference between the two painting styles. They did this by continually presenting the babies with different paintings by one of the artists until they grew bored (known as "habituation") and then seeing if the babies treated the sight of a painting by the other artist as somehow different, and therefore more worthy of their attention. The finding here was that babies who'd habituated to Monet were thereafter more attracted to a painting by Picasso, as revealed when new paintings by each artist were presented together side by side. There was clearly something novel about a Picasso painting that they perceived and found stimulating, which led them to look at it more. However, the reverse wasn't true. Babies habituated to Picasso preferred to look at yet another Picasso painting rather than enjoy the greater novelty of a Monet.

Next the researchers checked the babies could distinguish between different paintings by the same artist. They found that babies habituated to one particular Picasso were attracted to a new Picasso more than a repeat. Ditto for Monet - the babies preferred a new Monet to a familiar old one.

So why did the babies prefer to look at yet another Picasso, even after they'd seen loads of them, rather than enjoy the novelty of a Monet? The implication is that the appeal of a Picasso overpowers the novelty of a Monet. There's clearly something about Picasso, but what is it?

Cacchione's team looked at a whole range of factors: Picasso's use of vivid colours, sharp contours, and his use of squares and other figurative elements (Monet pictures, by contrast, are more subtle and realistic). But each time the researchers removed one of these elements, for example by using black and white pictures of the paintings, the babies still preferred Picasso.

The most likely explanation then is that it's something about these elements in combination that appeals to babies. One further factor, which the current study didn't look at, is luminance or "perceived lightness". The researchers said it's possible that babies prefer Picasso because of the greater luminance of his paintings. Crucially, luminance is processed mostly by the dorsal visual stream (the "where pathway"). This would fit with the idea that babies don't yet have a fully developed visual system - in particular the ventral stream (also known as the "what pathway") is immature.

"Many of Monet's paintings have so little luminance contrast that it is impossible to recognise their elements on the basis of dorsal processing," the researchers said. "It is possible that infants preferred paintings by Picasso, because they were easier to process and afforded the most stimulation to their still developing visual system."

A final possibility is that there's something about Monet that babies don't like, rather than there being something particularly appealing about Picasso. Only further studies with more babies and different artists will get to the truth of why there appears to be something about Picasso.
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ResearchBlogging.orgCacchione, T., Möhring, W., and Bertin, E. (2011). What is it about Picasso? Infants' categorical and discriminatory abilities in the visual arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts DOI: 10.1037/a0024129

This post was written for the BPS Research Digest.

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