Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Pigeons and Picassos

In 1995, a Japanese team was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for their work describing how pigeons can be trained to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet. Previous work had shown that pigeons could distinguish between the music of Bach and Stravinsky.

Receiving the Ig Nobel Prize must be a mixed blessing, as its very title implies. Often the implication is that there is something trivial in the research reported and sometimes it is awarded for what many would regard as work that is not scientifically worthy, for example a report to the US Congress that nicotine is not addictive (awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1996).

Others are frankly funny, such as the Ig Nobel Prize for Peace (2000), awarded to the British Royal Navy for a Monty Python-like command, that its sailors should not use live cannon but instead shout “Bang”, or the one awarded in Biology (2004) for showing that herrings communicate by passing wind (farting).

In fact, many of these Ig Nobel prizes go to worthy and scientifically interesting work. The one about herrings communicating by farting turned out, apparently, to be strategically and financially important because the Swedish Navy, suspecting that Swedish waters were being infiltrated by Soviet submarines, instigated a widespread but futile hunt for those submarines. After many inconclusive years, it turned out that the noises were probably coming from farting herrings. Had this been known, it is claimed, the Swedes would have saved hundreds of millions of Swedish Krones.

Science is, or should be, fun. And even apparently simple science can be fun BECAUSE it leads to new and interesting clues. The work for which the Japanese scientists got the Ig Nobel prize in 1995 really showed that pigeons, which have a well-developed visual apparatus, could distinguish between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet because they formed a concept of these paintings. They did not apparently distinguish them because of the presence of sharp edges in the cubist paintings or colour in those of Monet. Hence, in addition to a well-developed visual apparatus, they have brains that are sophisticated enough (if that is the right word) to develop visual concepts about visual stimuli unrelated to their daily lives.

Concept formation, critical for the acquisition of knowledge, is a fascinating subject, but how the brain forms concepts is not known in any detail. That pigeons should be able to form concepts around works designed by humans for consumption by humans, works which have little to do with their world, perhaps has the germs of an insight into how more complex brains form concepts. It would, in fact, be just as interesting to learn how humans form concepts around different schools of paintings.

If the Ig Nobel prize brings such interesting science to wider attention, then it is pursuing a worthy cause.

No comments: