Pantone, Painting & Pestering Kittens for Science

Alex Walker

Grumpy Kitten

Back in the 1980’s, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel won a Nobel Prize for applied kitten teasing.

Or so it seemed. Technically, they were asking the question: Do we learn how to see — or is it built-in and innate?

In their experiment, they separated a litter of newborn kittens into two groups. One group was raised in a world made entirely of horizontal lines (let’s call them the ‘H Cats’). The other group was raised in a vertical-line only world (the ‘V Cats’).

After three months, the kittens were all moved to a normal environment and monitored.

While the H cats bounded from chairs to tabletops with ease, they were seemingly completely blind to vertical shapes. As such, they were constantly bumping into chair legs and door frames.

Predictably, the V cats had the opposite problem. While they weaved expertly around chair legs, they were simply unable to comprehend the horizontal chair and table surfaces that the H cats played on.

The conclusion? Our brain writes its own ‘vision software’ based on whatever we’re exposed to in those first months of life.

Faces in buildings, clouds and trees

This at least partly explains why humans are so attuned to looking for faces. As newborns our world is dominated by looming faces above.

We search for faces from a very early age, so it’s not at all surprising that we often find them in clouds or trees or houses.

This week I came across some really amazing artwork that made me particularly aware of how good we are at spotting patterns.

Nick Smith's Van Gogh

British artist Nick Smith has created a new form of pixel art using — of all things — Pantone color swatches.

Famous portraits from Leonardo, Warhol, Magritte and Vermeer serve as the starting point for Smith’s work, and he build the images chip by chip.

While Pantone offers an almost endless color palette, the grid Nick works with is quite limited. The Van Gogh inspired piece here uses a 19 X 20 grid, so it’s a very blocky and low on detail rendering.

The strange thing is, the longer you look at it, the more detail seems to fill in. It’s as if someone is turning a dial to slowly focus it.

That’s your trusty face software filling in the blanks!

But what ever happened to those poor kittens?

Mastermind cat

I dont know for sure — but I like to imagine they all banded together and hatched a sinister plot to gradually take over the internet.

I think it worked too.

Republished from the SitePoint Design Newsletter.