‘To see oursels as ithers see us’

Using modern technology –  modern computing methods like text mining, face detection algorithms, and melodic extraction programs researchers have been able to conduct a large-scale analysis of cultural artefacts such as paintings, stories, or clothing to uncover how different societies in the historical past thought.

Researcher Nicholas Baumard of Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) University explained:

“It is obviously impossible to distribute questionnaires or conduct experiments on individuals who have been dead for decades or centuries. These novel methods, together with the increasing availability of digitized cultural datasets, have improved our ability to characterize and quantify several psychological dimensions across a variety of documents and historical periods.”

Juvenility in baby faces and in historical artwork Image credit Trends in Cognitive Sciences/Baumard et al.

Cultural artefacts can be studied on a larger scale than ever before thanks to new computational methods.

According to the review, text mining has been used to quantify the personality traits of historic literature, face detection algorithms have been used to determine the emotional expressions in works of art, and melodic extraction has been used to measure the emotional impact of music based on audio recordings or a written musical score.

“In 2023, it would be difficult to imagine King Charles III posing like Henry VIII, focusing on physical dominance. Charles III is expected to display signs of sympathy and trustworthiness. Thus, the portrait of Charles III, and that of Henry VIII, indirectly tell us something about the degree of dominance and authoritarianism that their subjects considered acceptable.”

King Henry VIII by Unknown artist oil on panel, perhaps early 17th century, based on a work of circa 1542 On display in Room 2 at Montacute House NPG 496

The researchers have acknowledged that many of the cultural artefacts examined were intended for very wealthy people and so promote an image of the rich and powerful and are not a complete picture of what that society thought.

Computational methods have mostly been validated based on their analysis of modern content and may need more development before being able to make robust conclusions about the past and what was in the minds of the people who lived in those times.

Click on this link to access “Cognitive fossils: Using cultural artifacts to reconstruct psychological changes throughout history”, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences

From To a Louse by Robert Burns

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