After spending two months studying the mind and brain in Italy this summer, Janelle S. Lambert ’12 said she felt like she was seeing the world through new eyes. Indeed, after a course on vision and perception, optical illusions jumped out at her right and left.
“On a class trip to Vicenza, we went to a theatre where the architect had built a stage that was really elaborate, and we noticed that its perception—floor going up and ceiling going down—made it look straight even though it was smaller in the back,” Lambert said.
This trick created the illusion of depth, making it appear that children along the back of the stage were adults standing far in the distance.
Optical illusions in theatres, old Roman streets, and even the Vatican were just one way that Lambert and her peers engaged with life in Italy while delving into neurobiology this summer.
The Mind/Brain/Behavior course she participated in, designed largely by psychology professor Alfonso Caramazza, who also directs a neuropsychology lab at Harvard and works at the University of Trento’s Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, brings students to Trento to study neurobiology, vision, art, and Italian.
In her first course, Lambert studied cognitive neuropsychology—including action potentials, language acquisition, and case studies of patients with brain lesions. Her second course, “Visual Neuroscience: From Sensory Input to Cognition,” was more specialized.
After class each day, a 10-minute bus ride brought Lambert to the city center in Trento, where she and classmates would plant themselves near a fountain or a church and—with the Alps framing the scene—crack open their reading.
The nine Italian students on the 24-student trip allowed for what Lambert called an interesting “cultural exchange,” as did the many Brazilian and African students at the local student café at the University of Trento.
“For a lot of the Italian students, the longest most of them had spoken English was two or three years,” Lambert said. “I took Italian for 6 years and I was nowhere at all near their level of fluency—I was really impressed.”
While Lambert used the weekends to venture to Venice, Florence, Naples, Pompeii, and other locations, the program set aside Fridays to embark on excursions—like hiking in the Alps or exploring the Lago di Garda, where “lake bled into sky” from her perch atop a mountain in a cable car one day.
She said the surroundings had a tangible effect on her mood and attitude towards learning.
“So much of how I felt, my disposition every day, was ‘I’m happy to be here, it’s so beautiful outside,’” she said.
Some students, like Jack L. Turban ’11, took an art-related class, “What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain,” as their second course. They learned from Wellesley professor Bevil Conway and Harvard Medical School professor Margaret S. Livingstone which visual phenomena cause the Mona Lisa to seem to smile when you look away, and how impressionists capture the “shimmering” effect in their paintings through colors of “equal value” (or “equal luminance,” as psychologists call it), among other topics.
In her teaching, Livingstone hunts for instances in which artists exploit visual phenomena, and she required that students do the same in Italy, which is rich in art history and museums.
“Once your eyes are open, it’s hard to go to a museum and not see it [artist’s use of visual phenomena], because artists are vision-scientists,” Livingstone said.
Turban is a Nuerobiology concentrator with a secondary in Dramatic Arts, but said he hadn’t seen a true connection between neurobiology and art before this course.
“It’s definitely tough because you traditionally think of art and science in different spheres, but through this course you come to understand they are not as distinct as is usually thought.”
—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.