Margaret Livingstone is Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. She has done research on hormones and behavior, learning, dyslexia, and vision. Livingstone has explored the ways in which vision science can understand and inform the world of visual art. She has written a popular lay book, Vision and Art, which has brought her acclaim in the art world as a scientist who can communicate with artists and art historians, with mutual benefit. She generated some important insights into the field, 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.
Wednesday, June 13 - PM General Session
What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain
Artists have been doing experiments on vision longer than neurobiologists. Some major works of art have provided insights as to how we see; some of these insights are so fundamental that they can be understood in terms of the underlying neurobiology. For example, artists have long realized that color and luminance can play independent roles in visual perception. Picasso said, "Colors are only symbols. Reality is to be found in luminance alone." This observation has a parallel in the functional subdivision of our visual systems, where color and luminance are processed by the evolutionarily newer, primate-specific What system, and the older, colorblind, Where (or How) system.
Many techniques developed over the centuries by artists can be understood in terms of the parallel organization of our visual systems. I will explore how the segregation of color and luminance processing are the basis for why some Impressionist paintings seem to shimmer, why some op art paintings seem to move, some principles of Matisse's use of color, and how the Impressionists painted "air". Central and peripheral vision are distinct, and I will show how the differences in resolution across our visual field make the Mona Lisa's smile elusive, and produce a dynamic illusion in Pointillist paintings, Chuck Close paintings, and photomosaics. I will explore how artists have intuited important features about how our brains extract relevant information about faces and objects, and I will discuss why learning disabilities may be associated with artistic talent.