Impossible figures are an ideal model for examining the development of local and global object processing mechanisms. Previous studies found that infants can distinguish between possible and impossible figures, i.e., 4-month old infants gazed at impossible cubes for longer periods of time in relation to possible cubes (Shuwairi et al., 2007; Shuwairi & Johnson, 2013). However, many questions remain as to when and how infants and young children arrive at a conceptual understanding of what it means for an object to be possible or globally coherent in three dimensions.
The current study examines how preschool-age children perceive global coherence and demonstrate their inherent knowledge of the pertinent structural properties found in depicted (2D) and real (3D) objects. Children will complete a series of tasks beginning with building a tower out of wooden blocks, followed by a matching task with pictures and choices of real objects, an implicit knowledge structure-function task, and lastly an explicit sorting task. A majority of children are expected to demonstrate the ability to distinguish possible from impossible figures, as shown by perfect performance in the 2D-3D matching and structure-function tasks.
In a paired sorting task, children are presented with a vignette that provide them with information about the nature of impossibility, followed by sequential presentation of structurally matched pairs of possible and impossible figures. Each child is asked to sort the “silly” objects into one pile and the “good” ones into another. After explicit guidance, children are expected to perform with fewer errors. In a separate study with college-age adults, everyone correctly identified and classified all the figures in the same task, thus demonstrating a developmental improvement.
Our results largely suggest that children can accurately register and encode the critical properties of objects and distinguish between possible and impossible object displays, at least on a perceptual level. Some experience, whether formal instruction or informal exposure, may be necessary to form a concept of global coherence and the notion of structural impossibility. These findings will offer an interesting initial probe into children’s conceptual understanding of object coherence and overall structural possibility. Further work will examine the nature and development of mechanisms responsible for identifying and understanding geometrical impossibility.