Scientists study a lot of crazy things, but it’s rarely that I look at a study and think it must have been a joke (not unless it’s April 1st). But this weekend I found “Preference for and discrimination of paintings by mice” by Shigeru Watanabe of Keio University in Tokyo, which was published last week in PLOS One.
The experiment begins with a box with three rooms. Two of the rooms each had a transparent wall behind which was an iPod that cycled through 10 images, changing the image every 10 seconds. The first test had paintings from two abstract artists, Kandinsky in one room and Mondrian in the other. Over a six-day period in which mice lived in the three-roomed box, only one mouse out of 20 spent more time in one of the artist’s rooms over the other; he preferred Kandinsky. The experiment was repeated with paintings from Renoir, an impressionist, and the cubist Picasso. Again, one mouse preferred one artist (Renoir), but the rest did not.
Watanabe was able to show that the mice could distinguish between two artists by conditioning them to associate a shot of morphine with works by one artist. When placed in the three-roomed box, they spent more time in the room with the paintings that they had once received morphine upon viewing. When they aren’t conditioned, though, mice appear not to care about art.
What you might find even more surprising is that this is not the first time that Watanabe has done a study like this. In his introduction, he summarizes similar studies he has made of birds, including a study of Java sparrows in which “six of seven birds preferred cubist paintings to impressionist paintings,” and several findings in pigeons. “Pigeons can discriminate paintings by Monet from those by Picasso, paintings by Chagall from those by Van Gogh, and Japanese paintings from impressionist paintings,” he writes. He has “also shown discrimination of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ children’s paintings by pigeons.”
Huh. Though this does leave me wondering how in the world Watanabe distinguished between “good” and “bad” art done by kids — even parents have a hard time doing that.
Image (Picasso’s Nude Standing by the Sea at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) courtesy of flickr user Wally Gobetz