See Like a Child, Paint Like Picasso


What's the Big Idea?

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child, said Picasso. A study from the University of California, San Diego, suggests why. Infants perceive the world in a fundamentally different way than typical adults, in which the senses are joined.

The authors of the study, Katie Wagner and Karen R. Dobkins, observe that early childhood development is characterized by "a period of exuberant neural connectivity" that may facilitate "arbitrary sensory experiences in infants that are unlike anything experienced by typical adults." These experiences are similar to the condition found in some adults that is known as synesthesia, a neurological condition in which two or more bodily senses are merged. 

The study found this sensory phenomenon is most pronounced in infants that are between two and three months old. By eight months, it has vanished altogether.

What's the Significance?

The San Diego study sheds new light on cognitive development and offers insight into a neurological condition that continues to fascinate us because it bucks an evolutionary trend. Our senses function separately so that we can perceive with clarity the ripeness of fruit, the sound of danger. Love perhaps still confounds us, as we seek out the site, scent and caress of the right mate. 

People with synesthesia, on the other hand, "experience the world in extraordinary ways," writes the neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran in his book, The Tell-Tale Brain. These so-called synesthetes "inhabit a strange no-man's-land between reality and fantasy. They taste colors, see sounds, hear shapes, or touch emotions in myriad combinations."

It is not surprising then, that this condition is such an appealing one to artists who have sought to defamiliarize their perceptions of reality, or, to put it another way, to rediscover a primal, childlike perception of reality. According to Ramchandran, synesthesia is seven times more common in artists.

Synesthesia can be found in the works of the French Symbolist poets, notably Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, and it is echoed in the visions of the Surrealist painters such as Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim. "It is imagination that first taught man the moral meaning of color, of contour, of sound, and of scent," wrote the synesthete Baudelaire, who wrote of perfumes fresh like the skin of infants and the scent of a woman's breast as the perfume of an exotic island. Baudelaire's fellow enfant terrible Arthur Rimbaud would later take synesthetic expression to new heights with his sonnet "Vowels" by assigning a color to each vowel: 

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins!

[A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes!]

Brophy Monday 30 January 2012 - 8:50 pm | | Brophy Blog

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