Cognitive Daily

A boy and his dog

A continuation of our “greatest hits” from past Cognitive Daily postings:
[originally posted on July 11, 2005]

There’s something about kids and dogs. The phrase “A boy and his dog” brings up quite a range of images: from the sweetness of Norman Rockwell to what sounds like a truly bizarre movie from 1975. Despite not being a dog-person myself (okay, not being a pet-person at all), I find the results from a study that looked at kids and dogs amazing. Marina Pavlova and her colleagues at the University of Tüebingen were curious about how well kids would understand point-light displays. Imagine placing little lights on the major joints of someone’s body (hips, elbows, etc) and then watching them move in a dark room. All you can see are little dots, but you can almost instantly identify a person–you can even name them, if it’s a friend. You can play with these displays here, and we have posted on them before.


The speed with which we recognize these figures could be because we have a lot of exposure to human movement, not just visually, but physically, as well. Pavlova and her team wanted to explore what young kids might see in these displays, and figure out if they needed the displays to be in motion. They created four point-light displays: a human walker, a running dog, a flying bird and a walking dog. The flying bird was viewed from the front, and the rest were viewed from the side. Kids and adults were shown the movies and asked to name the figures, and here are the percent of correct responses.


This is an easy task for adults, and by the time you are 5 years old, this part of your world is the same as adults’—there was not a significant difference between adult and 5 year-old performance. However, the younger kids are having trouble–some of the kids can see that the dots show a moving body, but many cannot. Of these movies, you might think that the human walker would be the easiest; after all, this is who you are. But take a look at how the youngest kids are doing with the walking dog–they are doing better with the dog than with the human!

What does this mean? Pavlova et al. suggest that the littlest kids are having trouble recognizing the walker because it’s the wrong view. Walking adults don’t look like that when you are only 3 feet tall; all the angles are different. If this is true, then we could expect kids recognition to improve dramatically with movies made from their point of view, and I hope someone’s taking a look at this, because it would be fun to see.

As a final note, how much do you need the motion for these displays? In their second experiment, Pavlova and her team showed new groups of adults and 5 year olds comic book versions of the movies. One problem they faced was even figuring out a way to explain the storyboard form to 3- and 4-year-olds. In the end, this problem didn’t matter, because both adults and children could not do this task at all—their guesses were at the level of random chance. This is something you can probably easily believe as you try to identify this form.


Any ideas? I’ll look for guesses in the comments.

Pavlova, M., Krageloh-Mann, I., Sokolov, A. & Birbaumer, N. (2001). Recognition of point-light biological motion displays by young children. Perception, 30, 925-933.


  1. #1 Sebastian
    July 11, 2007

    I’d say it’s a whale.

  2. #2 Dave
    July 11, 2007

    That’s Mark Spitz doing the crawl stroke.

  3. #3 Tex
    July 11, 2007

    It is a walking bird.

    The movie ‘A Boy and His Dog’ is great, by the way. Add it to your Netflix que.

  4. #4 The Happy Rock
    July 11, 2007

    A baby crawling?

    I would love to see the experiment done from a child’s point of view. I wonder if the adults would have a tougher time?

    It is easy as an adult to forget that the world looks different through children’s eyes. I try to remember to come down to my son’s level when talking to him, it seems to help understanding and retention.

  5. #5 SP
    July 11, 2007

    A man doing push-ups (or climbing if the picture has been rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise)

  6. #6 cephyn
    July 11, 2007

    person doing pushups is my guess too.

    As for the ones above though, i see them all except the running dog. I just don’t see it. it looks symmetrical to me, I thought it was a bat or butterfly.

  7. #7 sasha
    July 11, 2007

    someone swimming breast stroke? okay, I really have no idea, but it vaguely looks like a swimmer, and breast stroke seems plausible because a lot of the motion is lateral and wouldn’t be captured in a 2-d image.

  8. #8 kenny
    July 12, 2007

    Looks like a kangaroo hopping to me. And I’m not an Aussie.

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    July 12, 2007

    Sorry, everyone’s incorrect! Keep the guesses coming!

    Happy Rock, I think Greta actually did some pilot work on these displays from a child’s point of view. But I can’t remember the results; I’ll ask her when I get a chance.

  10. #10 Speed
    July 12, 2007

    Someone doing leapfrog (only the top person is visible)?

  11. #11 Craig
    July 12, 2007

    Is it a frog swimming?

  12. #12 peter
    July 12, 2007

    I can see why they would have trouble, I animated the 4 images into a sequence, and I still can’t really tell what it is.

  13. #13 peter
    July 12, 2007

    a seal?

  14. #14 VikramAdith
    July 12, 2007

    A person lying down on their side?

    Or a fish.

  15. #15 Ella
    July 14, 2007

    It’s a frog leaping. You can see the legs pushing off from the ground. If it’s not a frog leaping, it’s something else on four legs running.

  16. #16 acm
    July 16, 2007

    I have a different comment about the better identification of dog versus man — there is a much higher density of dots on the dog, which may make its overall shape and motion easier to recognize (especially for the youngest kids, least prepared for abstraction)…

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