An early encounter with my future self

In March 2011 Kate Gandon asked me “when did you realise how amazing science actually was and how you just had to do it as your career”.  She was then curating the L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre at the Royal Institution. This challenged me to think as far back as I could.

Hearts.001 When I was 7 years old, I got a lovely present, a little purse to keep a handkerchief in. The purse was made of felt, with two hearts stitched together, one side in blue, the other in red. In the middle of each side was a small heart, red on blue and blue on red. I remember that I much preferred the small red heart inside the large blue heart. But I was puzzled. What was wrong with the other side, when the actual shapes and colours were the same? Nothing was wrong of course, the funny thing was that I was questioning why I liked what I liked. I wanted to have a reason. It seemed strange to me that my liking was changed not by shape or colour, but by the difference in the proportion of small to large amount of colour. It is still puzzling to me now. I would probably call it a context effect.

Psychology investigates how we perceive and evaluate objects and a particularly favourite topic of mine is how context influences our perception and the value we put on things. I had no idea that this early experience has anything to do with psychology, nor that this was an example of scientific curiosity. Even at University it took me some time before I knew I must study Psychology rather than History of Art. But now I wonder whether I should not have known long ago that I wanted to be a scientist.

And what does this have to  do with social minds? I did ask members of my family wether they too preferred the combination I preferred, but I don’t remember what they said. Maybe they humoured me and  chose the same.

One of the topics that Chris and I will gr2be writing about is the rewarding effect of having one’s taste endorsed. We are gratified when we learn that others like the same thing that we like.  Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn did a great study where he showed that the reward signals in the brain shot up when the person in the scanner was told that his choice of a song was also preferred by an expert DJ.

2 thoughts on “An early encounter with my future self

  1. You are not alone, Uta, in preferring the big blue heart with the little red centre. Almost everyone would agree with you. In ‘artspeak’ the desired ‘center of interest’ in a painting is achieved by painting small area(s) of intense colour surrounded by an area which is less intense. Intense is usually light, bright and saturated while less intense is dark or dull. Red is more intense than blue (hence poisonous red berries). Small requires focused eye movements and you only see detail where your eyes focus so several bits of closely related intense detail keeps the eye on the area which the artist wants you to decide is the center of interest. Highlights capture attention and help make figure /ground decisions in paintings and normal perception. So for the large blue heart you focus on the little red heart and feel that you understand the image. For the large red heart, your eye wanders around the outside looking for a centre of interest and you feel confused and unhappy.

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