Monday, September 27, 2010

Predispositions for drawing

A recent comment to another blog post raised some interesting issues so I figured I should bump it up to a full discussion here.

The basic issue is whether drawing in a realistic style (proper anatomy, shading, depth, etc) is somehow antithetical to our cognitive predispositions for drawing. I've argued before that drawing involves the deployment of graphic patterns in our minds in various ways, and that fluency is a proficiency in this system of representation.

There seem to be two issues here regarding the system of drawing:

1) What can we do?
2) What are we predisposed to do?

The answer to the first question is that we absolutely can draw realistically. Indeed, we can even develop mental patterns that can generate these realistic images. This is what creates a "style" of drawing. No one would say that Jim Lee or many other modern comic artists are "cartoony", yet they certainly use consistent patterns in their drawings that can be tied directly to their "styles."

However, I would say regarding question #2 that we are not predisposed to draw realistically. The evidence I've seen seems to suggest that our natural system of drawing is based more on representing contours and basic patterns. The more realistic aspects of a drawing system (perspective, depth, shading) are always the things that are more struggled with and require explicit teaching to learn (i.e. they won't be acquired effortlessly without some form of external instruction).

My advisor has recently been addressing a similar issue in language: what is it that a language speaker naturally is predisposed to know without any exposure to an external system, and what is learned (and relatedly, what aspects of cognition do we share with other primates and what has evolved to uniquely enable humans to speak). His argument, which will hopefully be making an appearance in a journal sometime soon, is that there is a certain set of innate principles that humans have regarding speaking, and that modern language has added structure on top of these deeper predispositions.

This is largely the way I view drawing. Our cognitive predisposition is for certain types of graphic representation: line drawings built of patterns that lack perspective and depth, though can use occlusion, etc.**

On top of this is the potential for explicit instruction for further iconicity: "accurate" anatomy, shading, perspective, etc. This is why much pre-Renaissance art lacked these iconic features. Because we aren't predisposed for it, "point perspective" and "shading" was a "discovery" and not something learners mature into naturally.

This doesn't mean we "can't" or "shouldn't" do it, but it does mean we aren't wired to do it without instruction.

** For an excellent work on what the developmental trajectory of drawings looks like without influence from learning an external system, check out John Willat's Making Sense of Children's Drawings.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gestures in comics

A doubleshot of reviews**:

ResearchBlogging.orgFein, Ofer, & Kasher, Asa (1996). How to do things with words and gestures in comics Journal of Pragmatics, 26 (6), 793-808 DOI: 10.1016/S0378-2166(96)00023-9

This study looked at the role of gestures in comics (specifically, those in the European comic Asterix). The study had people interpret the meanings of both panels from the comics, and of photos where people took on similar poses. The backgrounds of the panels were erased, so there was no context for the gestures. In one part, they were asked to write possible dialogue for the gestures, and in another task they were given potential meanings and asked to assign them.

It concludes that gestures in comics are interpreted the same as ‘real life’ gestures, and that the meaning imbued in them comes from the ingesticular force (i.e. the intent of the expression) rather than the propositional content of the accompanying speech (in word balloons). One interesting tidbit noted that some people said the photos were actually harder to interpret than the comics panels (though the stats disputed this). If this were true, then it would support McCloud's insinuation that cartoony images are more "base" than realistic ones. I'd like to know the degree of fluency the subjects had with reading comics and whether people with more "comics" experience rated higher or lower in this regard.

Raecke Jochen. 1999. Using Comics as Data for Research into the Connection between Pointing Gestures and Deictics. In E. André, M. Poesio, and H. Rieser (eds). Proceedings of the Workshop on Deixis, Demonstration, and Deictic Belief at ESSLLI XI.

This is a short and hard to find article that I had to scour several libraries to find. This study uses comics to analyze the relationship between deictics (words that "point" to something else, like pronouns) and gestures in Serbo-Croation. His method codes a corpus of comics comparing the relations of the images' gestures to the conent of the speech balloons. He finds that pointing gestures by far dominate the gestures, and pointing gestures alone do not fulfill the meaning of the representations (i.e. multimodality is necessary). This isn't surprising, since pointing gestures are indexical, which means that they only indicate meaing in something else (the same way a pronoun refers to a different element for meaning).

**This post was originally posted 12/23/05

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Review: Brain damage and ordering of panels in comic strips

I recently reviewed an older study of brain damaged individual's comprehension of final-panel jokes in comic strips. Here's another paper that explores brain damage and the ordering of panels in sequences.

Participants were asked to arrange scrambled parts of a story into their accurate order, and the authors compared the abilities of numerous types of brain damaged patients. Participants reconstructed both six-panel comic strips as well as verbally translated versions of those strips (in two forms: descriptions with complex grammar and those with simple grammar).

Individuals with global damage to their left hemisphere and Wernicke’s aphasics (also a damage to the left hemisphere) did the poorest on reconstruction of both types.

Patients with right hemisphere damage did poorly in reconstructing comic strips, but not verbal stories. Broca’s aphasics (who have damage to the frontal left hemisphere) showed the opposite trend: poor reconstruction of verbal stories but decent performance on comic strips.

Broca's aphasics are largely recognized as having deficits with issues of hierarchic ordering, particularly grammar in language. So, when they speak, they may be able to create meanings, but they struggle to produce combinations of words in sentences. Wenicke's aphasics are known for the opposite: their grammar may be intact, but they have problems with meaning. This means they can speak in full sentences, but those sentences will make no sense.

These findings imply that both hemispheres are involved in the comprehension of verbal and visual narratives, but do so in differing ways. The right hemisphere appears to guide picture reconstruction more than the verbal comprehension, which appears more effected by left hemisphere damage.

However, one flaw in the study is that it is a little unclear on just what traits the participants are manipulating. In other words, what aspect of comprehension is being affected by their brain damage: Narrative? Semantics/Meaning? These are not the same thing, and it's hard to tell with the task what is being targeted. It is also hard to tell which of these is being damaged by the brain damage — perhaps in some cases the brain damage affects narrative, but in others semantics.

Thus, while it is nice to have dissociable findings and clues to comprehension, the design and theory underlying the experiment make any solid conclusions hard to discern.

ResearchBlogging.orgHuber W, & Gleber J (1982). Linguistic and nonlinguistic processing of narratives in aphasia. Brain and language, 16 (1), 1-18 PMID: 7104674

Friday, September 03, 2010

Back to school...

School is starting up next week, which means I suddenly have lots more stuff appearing on my plate. I'm still plugging away at my theoretical paper (now at 140 pages and growing!) as well as preparing a few other papers for submission to journals. Once I finish that paper, I'll be jumping back into the grind with more experiments. I'm also excitedly taking my last required course of grad school this semester, which is on the nature of scientific discovery. Should be fun! Otherwise, I have yet to project what sort of timing I'll have for blogging coming up. However, I recently joined the site Research Blogging which is an aggregator for blog posts about peer-reviewed research. So, I may start reposting several of the article reviews that have been done on the blog over the years so they'll also be picked up there (and reappear for any new readers who may have missed them the first time around).