Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (detail) (via Wikimedia)

Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (detail) (via Wikimedia)

A recent study shows that mice can indeed have preferences to paintings, given the proper morphine reinforcement.

In a paper called “Preference for and Discrimination of Paintings by Mice” by Shigeru Watanabe, published on June 6 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, the Japanese psychology professor pitted Renoir against Picasso and Kandinsky against Mondrian for critical rodent affection.

As his abstract explains:

In general mice did not display a painting preference except for two mice: one preferred Renoir to Picasso, and the other preferred Kandinsky to Mondrian. Thereafter, I examined discrimination of paintings with new mice. When exposure to paintings of one artist was associated with an injection of morphine (3.0 mg/kg), mice displayed conditioned preference for those paintings, showing discrimination of paintings by Renoir from those by Picasso, and paintings by Kandinsky from those by Mondrian after the conditioning. They also exhibited generalization of the preference to novel paintings of the artists. After conditioning with morphine for a set of paintings consisting of two artists, mice showed discrimination between two sets of paintings also from the two artists but not in association with morphine. These results suggest that mice can discriminate not only between an artist’s style but also among paintings of the same artist.

Shigeru Watanabe (via Keio University)

Watanabe previously did a study with pigeons where they learned to discriminate between slides of paintings by Monet and Picasso, and he also worked with pigeons to get them to discriminate between “good” and “bad” art by schoolchildren. And in yet another study, he looked at the  preference for paintings by Java sparrows and “found that six of seven birds preferred cubist paintings to impressionist paintings.”

Why bother with this rather whimsical research? Well, the idea that art and the appreciation of aesthetics is a human thing is one that Watanabe is confronting with these studies, where the cognition that something is beautiful or ugly, or “good” or “bad” with art can reflect sensory experiences in other species, as well as show that the experience of art is tied to the experience of pleasure.

While the mice got morphine and the birds got food for their either spending more time with a painting or choosing it with the tap of a button (for the judging pigeons), humans get this in a less food-based way. However, rodents are even more interesting being that they’re not considered as visual as birds, and in the end they mostly didn’t really seem to care if they were with Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” Kandinsky’s “Mondo Blue,” Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror,” or Renoir’s “Rowers at Argenteuil” (all paintings used in the study, you can see them all here). A sample result: “Analysis of individual mice revealed only one mouse out of 20 mice displayed some preference for Kandinsky during 6 days of the test (t(5) = 2.53, P = 0.053), suggesting the rare possibility of picture preference in mice.”

Given that some art just needs the right audience, maybe the mice would be more open to something sculptural or installation-based for their tactile little feet? Here’s hoping Watanabe continues his intriguing studies to make art critics of the animal world.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

6 replies on “Study: Mice Prefer Kandinsky to Mondrian”

  1. This sort of nonsense gives science a bad name. This experiment is so full of confirmation bias it’s unreal.

  2. This is poor science but even worse Journalism. Does Hyperallergic need sensational headlines that badly? The experiment is about a mouse’s preference for Morphine and their so called “surprising” ability to respond to specific visual stimuli in order to get their fix. Oh, yeah and that art is tied to pleasure. Whoa! Didn’t see that coming.

    1. Hi,
      We pride ourselves on publishing a wide range of things—long pieces with original reporting and lighthearted responses to interesting things we find on the internet and in the world. This is the latter. It’s clearly art related, and it’s quirky and a little thought-provoking. The experiment (as I understand it) isn’t just about morphine; it’s about the relationship of art and pleasure and the question of whether animals can have sensory experiences. If you want to write a scientific refutation of the study, that would be great, but in the meantime, I don’t see any reason for yelling at us for blogging about it.

      1. I don’t think anyone is yelling at you. Science often deals very badly with art ideas and you are entitled to show it, no matter how daft. But I think we are entitled to think it sounds very pseudoscientific based on this little report. I think I could refute that scientists thesis in no time,and for lots of reasons, but I really cannot be bothered as it is inconsequential stuff. This guy, at the most, may have found that certain animals are attracted for some unknown reason (try interviewing the mouse, you won’t get far) to certain visual formations. But the same naturally occurring formations would do the same. Art and taste in art is a human social construct. So what is the point? Explore visual attraction and attachment in relation to animals by all means – but bringing the art word in just unnecessarily muddies the thesis.

        1. Yeah, maybe “yelling at” was the wrong phrase. Anyway, you are definitely entitled to your opinions and to think it sounds pseudoscientific. But as I said, this post wasn’t about debating the scientific merit of the study; it was about sharing something quirky and interesting.

          1. In an article in New Scientist, Watanabe says. “The experiments demonstrated the ability of discrimination, not the ability to enjoy painting.’ So that explains it then.

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