Professor V.S. Ramachandran, Neuroscientist, explains the Herring Gull Test, an experiment with baby seagull chicks that illustrates the neurological principle of peak shift — the hard-wiring of brains to focus on parts of objects that matter the most. Peak shift is fundamental in understanding why we prefer exaggerated images of the human body.
"…about ten years ago… I started asking myself - what is art?
"When I started thinking about this question, I realized that one clue might come from research that was done on seagulls nearly fifty years ago at Oxford."
Scientist Niko Tinbergen discovered that Herring gull chicks habitually tap the red-striped beak of their mother to be fed. He further realized that the tapping response of the chicks could be triggered without any beak at all.
In place of the beak, the chicks responded to a yellow colored stick with a red strip painted on its side. Further, if the number of stripes were increased, from one strip to three stripes, the chick's enthusiasm for tapping the stick and demanding food increased proportionally.
"…when the chick looks at this elongated object with three red stripes it responds even more than it does to a natural beak."
"I think there's an analogy here in that what's going on in the brains of our ancestors, the artists who were creating these Venus figurines were producing grossly … exaggerated versions, the equivalent for their brain of what the stick with the three red stripes is for the chick's brain."