Even newborn chicks know Escher's staircases are impossible

Illustration for article titled Even newborn chicks know Eschers staircases are impossible

It turns out that the impossible buildings and bizarre objects dreamed up by artists like M.C. Escher tap into an incredibly primal understanding of the world's geometry, a knowledge that is hard-wired into all vertebrates, including newly hatched chickens.


Because scientists can kind of be jerks when they really want to know something, a bunch of researchers at Italy's University of Trento decided to test how newborn chicks reacted to impossible shapes - specifically, the Necker cube, in which the front and back corners overlap in a way that is impossible in our 3D world. The researchers kept 66 chicks in total darkness for the first 24 hours after they hatched, just to make absolutely sure they had no prior visual experience before undergoing the experiment.

The chicks were then placed in a small enclosure with drawings of two cubes on the other side. One of the outlines was of a normal cube while the other depicted an impossible cube. Two-thirds of the chicks approached the normal cube, suggesting the chicks had, on average, a natural affinity for objects that could actually exist in the natural world, which of course means they have a sense of that hardwired into their brains.


Previous studies have already shown babies as young as four months can distinguish between images that can and can't exist, but this takes things rather a bit further by suggesting that not only is this perception built into newborn brains, but this facility is actually possessed by all vertebrates.

Biology Letters via The New Scientist.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


That particular endless staircase pictured is only impossible if the steps are flat and parallel to each other like regular stairs. If you tilt the whole deal so that the steps are like a sawtooth, and slightly angle each one at the corners, it's possible to build it.

Disclaimer: I have only done this in my head.