Exactly the same way to a disembodied beak with no

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Unformatted text preview: to a disembodied beak with no mother attached. Why does a chick think a scientist waving a beak is a mother seagull? Well, the goal of vision is to do as little processing or computation as is necessary for the job on hand, in this case for recognizing mother. And through millions of years of evolution, the chick has acquired the wisdom that this long thing with a red spot always has a mother attached to it, rather than a mutant pig or a malicious ethologist. So it can take advantage of the statistical redundancy in nature and assume “Long yellow thing with a red spot equals mother,” thereby simplifying the processing and saving a lot of computational labor. That seems fair enough. But what Tinbergen found next is that he didn’t even need a beak. He took a long yellow stick with three red stripes, which looked nothing like a beak—and that’s important—and the chicks pecked at the stick even more than they would have pecked at a real beak. They preferred it to a real beak, even though it didn’t resemble a beak. Tinbergen had stumbled on a superbeak—an ultrabeak. So the chick’s brain goes, “Wow, what a sexy beak!” Why does this happen? We don’t know exactly, but obviously there are neural circuits in the visual pathways of the chick’s brain that are specialized to detect a beak as soon as the chick 175 the internet and the university hatches. They fire upon seeing the beak. Perhaps because of the way they are wired up, they may actually respond more powerfully to the stick with the three stripes than to a real beak. Maybe the neurons’ receptive field embodies a rule such as “the more red contour the better.” And so even though the stick doesn’t look like a beak—maybe not even to the chick— this strange object is actually more effective in driving beak detectors than a real beak. And a message from this beak-detecting neuron goes to the emotional limbic centers in the chick’s brain, giving it a big jolt and the message “Here is a superbeak.” The chick is absolutely mesmerized. All of which brings me to my punch line about art. If herring gulls had an art gallery, they would hang a long stick with three red stripes on the wall; they would worship it, pay millions of dollars for it, call it a Picasso, but not understand why—why they are mesmerized by this thing even though it doesn’t resemble anything. That’s all any art lover is doing when buying contemporary art: behaving exactly like those gull chicks. In other words, human artists through trial and error, through intuition, through genius, have discovered the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar. They are tapping into these and creating for the human brain the equivalent of the long stick with three stripes. And what emerges is a Henry Moore or a Picasso. The advantage with these ideas is that they can be tested experimentally. It is possible to record from cells in the fusiform gyrus of the brain that respond powerfully to individual faces. Som...
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