Science-- there's something for everyone

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Line drawings as good as photographs


People can identify scenes just as well from line drawings as they can from actual photographs. So says a study by researchers from Ohio State University, Stanford and the University of Illinois. Apparently, color and shading are unnecessary accessories for interpreting images.

The scientists showed ten volunteers color photographs and line drawings of six scenes: beaches, city streets, forests, highways, mountains and offices. The participants were all undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while looking at the pictures. In particular, the researchers were interested in the parahippocomal place area (PPA) of the brain, a region known to be involved in place recognition. Would the fMRI data on the PPA activity be the same for both line drawings and photo? Not only was the answer a resounding ‘yes’, but the scientists could use the fMRI data to predict what sort of scene the volunteers were looking at equally well whether the subjects looked at drawings or photos.

I actually don’t find this surprising. The human brain is remarkably adept at finding patterns in the simplest images. Most commonly, this ability is used to see faces in everyday objects, a phenomenon known as ‘pareidolia’. However, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that we can also see a beach when we look at a few squiggly lines.