21 October 2010

Sharp edges and soft science

I was vaguely aware that some store tried to change its logo, and it backfired. This is not surprising. These things happen. New Coke, anyone?

What is surprising are some of the reasons that a consulting firm, which is supposed to be informed by neuroscience, offered for why the new logo failed. I was stopped dead by this one:

Our brains, being hard-wired to avoid sharp edges, react negatively to the sharp edges of the blue cube cutting into the round curve of the letter "p".

What evidence is there that our brains are hard-wired to avoid sharp edges? What would that even look like?

I tried looking in Google Scholar for "sharp edge avoidance" and I got ecology papers about animals avoiding the edge of their habitats. "brain sharp edges" gave me a mish-mash of articles, none on target. Can anyone provide references that would support this claim?

Now, it is definitely true that many visual systems are wired to be very good at edge detection. Keffer Hartline won a Nobel prize for showing how the eyes of horseshoe crabs would enhance edges using lateral inhibition, mutual inhibitory connections between parts of the eye. Similar things happen in mammalian eyes, which I might say suggests that our brains think sharp edges are not sharp enough! But detection and enhancement of visual edges is not avoidance.

To take another tack, our ancestors got us where we are in part by careful creation of sharp edges, making tools of flint and obsidian. Would that have been possible if we were hard-wired to avoid sharp edges?

It’s also a little insulting to argue that our brains are so stupid that we can’t distinguish visual overlap from actual, physical, cutting objects.

Other elements of the analysis of the logo are better. But if this is representative of the level of science offered by this consulting firm, it’s not encouraging. That this is being put out by a press release is also indicative of what’s going on here: someone with a start up is trying to drum up business. Pity that New Scientist took the bait.

Additional: Mo has another take.


Unknown said...

Thanks for throwing some cold water on that stupid article.

Unknown said...

thanks for writing an article showing the other side for a change

i think its strange how a bunch of people just said its "cutting in" and then nobody seems to think any differently or question it. its scary how much people will believe if they see the word neuroscience close by.
isnt something like that really just subjective anyway? from where im looking its clearly not cutting into it but just behind the p.where has the p been cut? they are two dimensional shapes right? so if the square did cut into the p then there would be part of the p would just fall off. have they not read Flatland?!!
i mean if they were 3 dimensional shapes then yes, you could see from the side that it had cut into it but thats not the case with this.
either way, it could be the worst logo ever (does anybody else smell a publicity stunt?)