Profile Painting Study Connects Culture with Cognition

Profile paintings changed as our ways of thinking shifted over time. Find out how that helps explain the link between our culture and our cognition.

I’m a reasonably avid photographer, and some of my more passable shots appear in these pages. I’ve also tried my hand at painting with watercolours.

Having hung around the McMichael Gallery a lot, I tried to apply lessons from the Group of Seven to my modest efforts. Building a website has also taught me a couple of tricks about graphic design.

One lesson I’ve picked up from dabbling in the visual arts is not to stick my subject in the middle of the frame all of the time. For instance, if I’m taking a selfie, I don’t have to be “front and centre” in the shot.

I Don’t Have to Be Front and Centre in the shot

I used to have an otherwise superb boss who drove the art department crazy. She would send everything back that wasn’t perfectly aligned symmetrically.

Scientists have known for a long time that when we draw, we like to centre things. We especially want to put our subject in the middle of the page horizontally.

There are different names for the way we look at a blank canvas. Some art experts call it “the skeleton” or “the net.”  Printers call it “the grid.”

Experts Call It “the Skeleton,” “the Net,” or  “the Grid.”

We think of things as being straight or crooked within the frame. Our perception seems to be the result of vertical and horizontal lines in our heads.

This grid mentality creates a bias for putting our subject in the middle of the page. We feel pulled to that approach, and we seem to find it easier to draw things that way.

On the other hand, we don’t find this approach very appealing when we look at a picture that someone else drew. For example, studies have asked people to look at two profile paintings and tell the researchers which one they liked better.

Artists Learn to Resist the Urge to Centre Everything

They usually preferred profile paintings where the painter hasn’t centred the subject’s eye over one where they have. Master portrait artists know this, and they learn to resist the urge to place everything symmetrically.

This tendency toward symmetry is especially common when we create a profile painting of someone. When someone is looking to the front, we’re curious about what’s so attention-grabbing there. We’re not particularly interested in what’s behind the person.

As a result, we like to see some space in front of the subject in a profile. We don’t want to see an equal distance in front of, and behind, the subject of a portrait.

Rather See More Distance in Front than Behind

Yet, due to horizontal centring, our impulse is to draw subjects smack dab in the middle of the picture. Alternatively, we may think that a picture is “straight” if we have the same amount of space on either side of the subject.

However, just like with other kinds of symmetry, viewers prefer a lack of balance. Portraits where there’s more space in front of the subject’s face, and less space behind it seem to draw the viewer’s attention.

This week, this journal Cognitive Science released a new study from the Santa Fe Institute. It looked into how the way we think influences the way we compose a painting. 

How We Think Influences the Way We Compose a Painting

They went through 1,831 profile paintings by 582 artists. The date range for the pictures ran from the 15thto the 20th century.

There were three rules for the portraits. The subject had to have only one eye visible. Otherwise, the picture wasn’t an actual profile. They couldn’t be interacting with a person or an object. Thirdly, the subject’s angle of direction had to be apparent.

The study found that our cognition shapes the way we set up a portrait. That has meant that as human perceptions changed over time, so did our paintings.

As Human Perceptions Changed Over Time, So Did Our Paintings

The researchers believed that a preference for space in front of the subject’s profile was valid from experience, but they wanted to test their hypothesis. They called the idea “forward bias.”

Having gone through all the profile paintings, they found that the more successful artists have always used forward bias throughout history. They also found that, as cultural norms about centring things relaxed over time, more and more artists adopted a forward bias in their work.

Helena Miton, a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, is the lead author of the study. As she explained, “Culture and cognition are two interacting domains.”

“Culture and Cognition are Two Intersecting Domains”

She went on to say, “With most cultural phenomena, you’re going to have some kind of influence from cognition. Our idea is to work out how we identify these factors and how we work with that type of causality.”

The reason for forward bias seems to come from the body plans of most animals. We don’t have eyes in the back of our heads.

As a result, we almost always travel in the direction toward which we’re looking. Anyone who’s played hockey knows that looking one way and moving or shooting the opposite way confuses the goalie.

Body Plan Makes Us Want to Know What Interests them

Our body plan, along with our intense curiosity, makes us want to know what interests the subject of a profile painting.  Also, our flight-or-fight response keeps us continually anticipating the direction in which other animals are going to move.

The techniques used in the study were innovative. The team painstakingly measured the exact distance from the face to the edge of the frame. Researchers also determined the distance from the body to the border of the frame, both ahead and behind.

They then did statistical calculations by dates. Finally, they plotted the results to show the trends over time. Previous studies have taken more subjective approaches.

Researchers Could Use Approach in Other Areas

The team believes that researchers could use this approach in other areas of cultural science. It could be used to study more general trends and on a broader database of cultural artifacts.

Scientists could even apply the techniques to cultural trends outside the art world. These could range from writing practices to the medical profession.

Storytelling is one of the things that make us human. Our culture, our ability to share and pass down knowledge in various forms, is unique to our species. 

Storytelling Is One of the Things that Make Us Human

Discovering more about how we do that is vital to understanding how we think. It also fills in the gaps in the larger, science-based story we need about humanity’s place in Nature and our Universe.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
New analysis of human portraits reveals shift in culture, cognition
A Forward Bias in Human Profile‐Oriented Portraits
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Music is Universal After All, Harvard Study Finds
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution


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