Art and Vision Science

Visual Insights: What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

17.30 - 18.30, Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre

One of three spatial frequency filters of The Mona Lisa's smileOne of three spatial frequency filters of The Mona Lisa's smileOne of three spatial frequency filters of The Mona Lisa's smile
The Mona Lisa's smile filtered at three spatial frequencies. © Margaret Livingstone

Professor Margaret Livingstone (Department of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School)

Ticket/entry details: Open to all, free admission (first-come-first-served)

Organised by: Tim Satterthwaite and Dr Meredith A Brown

Artists have been doing experiments on vision longer than neurobiologists. The effects used by artists offer insights into how we see, and these can now be described in terms of the underlying neurobiology. For example, artists have long realised that colour and luminance can play independent roles in visual perception; techniques that exploit this, developed over centuries, reflect the parallel organisation of the human visual system. Margaret Livingstone's lecture will describe how the segregation of colour and luminance processing makes Impressionist paintings shimmer, and why some op art paintings seem to be in motion. Other artists have discovered, intuitively, that central and peripheral vision are distinct: differences in resolution across our visual field can help explain the Mona Lisa’s elusive smile, and the dynamic illusion in Pointillism or in Chuck Close paintings. Whilst the perspectives of art and neurobiology are different, they share the goal of understanding the nature of visual experience.

Margaret Livingstone is Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, where she has led ground-breaking research into hormones and behaviour, learning, dyslexia, and the neurobiology of vision. She has explored, in particular, how vision science can inform our understanding of visual art; her popular science book Vision and Art (2002) brought her wide acclaim as a scientist who can communicate with artists and art historians, to their mutual benefit. Livingstone’s work has generated some important insights, including a simple explanation for the elusive quality of the Mona Lisa’s smile (it is more visible to peripheral vision than to central vision) and the fact that Rembrandt, like a surprisingly large number of famous artists, was likely to have been stereoblind.

The 2013 Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series explores the intersection between art and vision science. More than fifty years after Gombrich’s pioneering Art and Illusion, the science of perception remains, for the most part, marginal to art historical practice, despite extraordinary recent advances in our understanding of the visual brain. In this series of five international lectures, leading vision scientists and art historians argue the case for a new engagement between art and science, in which scientific models of vision inform the theories and approaches of art history. The complex dynamics of perception, unlocked by contemporary vision science, contain implications for the study of art that are only now being realised.

Sponsored by the FM Kirby Foundation with additional support from The Guarantors of Brain

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