Art Offers Clues into Brain

In a captivating lecture filled with optical illusions, renowned artwork, and a few experiments for good measure, Professor of Neurobiology Margaret S. Livingstone presented the Mind/Brain/Behavior Distinguished Harvard Lecture for 2012.

Livingstone’s talk, entitled “What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain,” explored the way in which artists have intuited how our brains extract relevant information about faces and objects.

Livingstone emphasized throughout that artists have actually been doing experiments on vision much longer than neurobiologists.

“Artists are always trying to get you to look at things differently because, for instance, many art works are not being processed by the part of the brain that you regularly use,” said Livingstone.

She also alluded to the dynamic nature of perceiving the world around us as a skill that the world’s best artists have mastered. She argued that an artist’s talent lies to a large degree in his or her ability to understand innately how our brains process information rather than precision in replicating a given object.

“Vision is information processing, not image transmission,” Livingstone said.

She explained how great artists played with an individual’s ability to extrapolate from partial images.

“Your ability to see color is coarse, so you don’t have to color inside the lines,” said Livingstone. “That is why pastel painters draw a line and then fill the color only partly in order for your brain to fill it in.”

Livingstone demonstrated our mind’s extraordinary ability to not only identify but also recognize faces flashed on the screen for just a fraction of a second. She then introduced perhaps the most famous face of all time.

“This is the Mona Lisa,” said Livingstone. “Art historians point out why everyone loves this painting. It has to do with how lively the Mona Lisa seems.” Livingstone went on to explain the reasons for the painting’s fame, emphasizing the physiology of sight.

“As you move your eyes around, which you do several times a second, her expression changes,” said Livingstone. “This gives the painting a dynamic quality, and 500 years ago a dynamic quality in a painting was something special.”

As she concluded her talk, Livingstone pointed out that some of the most talented painters were those who perceived the world differently than the average person due to alterations in brain function or eye alignment. She emphasized how these characteristics contributed to their amazing works.

Among the attendees was Han Yan ’13, who is currently studying mind, brain, and behavior. “The content itself was fascinating for me because we go through life with minimal knowledge about our eyes,” Yan said. “It is really interesting to see how the visual process can be broken down into little bits.”

Another student, Christine L. Shrock ’13, commented on the universality of Livingstone’s words. “I think it is really cool that when you talk about optical illusions and how we see the world, it is relevant to anyone who has eyes,” said Shrock. “She brings it to life in a very special way.”

—Staff writer Fatima N. Mirza can be reached at fmirza@college.harvard.edu.

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