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26 October 2012

Honeybees’ brains may be small in size, but a study by QBI scientists has shown their profound structure allows them to learn and process highly complex visual information.

Honeybees’ brains may be small in size, but a study by QBI scientists has shown their profound structure allows them to learn and process highly complex visual information.

The study, published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A, found honeybees had remarkable visual learning and discrimination abilities that extended beyond simple colours, shapes or patterns.

QBI researcher Dr Judith Reinhard said honeybees had a highly developed capacity for processing complex visual information, and could distinguish landscape scenes, types of flowers, and even human faces.

“This suggests that in spite of their small brain, honeybees have visual learning abilities that are comparable in many respects to vertebrates,” she said.

Dr Reinhard and her team investigated whether this capacity extended to complex images that humans distinguish on the basis of artistic style, including Impressionist paintings by Monet and Cubist paintings by Picasso.

“We were able to show that honeybees learned to simultaneously discriminate between five different Monet and Picasso paintings, and that they did not rely on luminance, colour, or spatial frequency information,” she said.

When presented with novel paintings of the same style, the bees demonstrated an ability to generalise, suggesting they could differentiate Monet from Picasso by extracting and learning the characteristic visual information inherent in each style.

“Our study suggests that discrimination of artistic styles is not a higher cognitive function that is unique to humans, but simply due to the capacity of animals – from insects to humans – to extract and categorise the visual characteristics of complex images,” Dr Reinhard said.

The paper is titled Honeybees can discriminate between Monet and Picasso paintings, and is available online: http://www.springer.com/alert/urltracking.do?id=Lda6e3aMad8810S295284f

Media contact:

Mikaeli Costello, Communications Manager, Queensland Brain Institute (0401 580 685, Mikaeli.Costello@uq.edu.au)

The Queensland Brain Institute

The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at The University of Queensland (UQ) is a world-leading research facility focused on discovering the fundamental mechanisms that regulate brain function. Unlike research institutes that focus on a specific disease or condition, QBI is structured to study the brain’s fundamental molecular and physiological mechanisms.

QBI researchers are working to unlock the mysteries of the neurodegenerative disease and mental health disorders which currently account for a staggering 45 per cent of the burden of disease in Australia.