Study: Mice Prefer Kandinsky to Mondrian

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)
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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