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Neurobiology Looks To Shed Light On Vision, Art

By Alissa M D'gama, Contributing Writer

If you ask a child how they see, they say they open their eyes. Simple enough. But what if you ask the child what’s going on in the eye?

It’s a far more complex question, says Bevil R. Conway, a visiting lecturer in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, and in trying to answer it, researchers like Conway hope to provide a window into the interplay between art and biology that shapes both how we perceive art and how we create it.

“One of the most attractive things about the study of vision is it’s so immediate and obvious to us,” Conway says. “Art reveals something of the magic of that process and in many ways it reflects the mystery of vision that we often take for granted.”

AN EYE FOR ART

Conway—himself a visual artist who creates sculptures and paintings—is trying to unravel this mystery by researching the neuroscience of color.

“Many of the questions that I tackle try to understand the neuroscientific basis of color, particularly how artists are capable of achieving color contrasts and color constancy effects” he says.

When looking at a finished painting, Conway says he tries to get his students to understand the painting as it was being made, as a “dynamic and changing thing” that reacts to visual feedback and makes one see it differently as it evolves.

“There is a kind of feedback as you’re making a picture—the colors on the canvas are actually changing as you apply other colors next to them,” Conway says. “That dynamic process reflects something about how the visual system works.” In fact, art and art practices are fundamentally constrained by how the visual system works, he says, and the study of art is in some ways in the service of the quest to understand vision.

A MIND FOR ART

Along with Margaret S. Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at the Medical School, Conway will be teaching a class about art and science for a new Harvard Summer School program.

The program in Trento, Italy was organized by Alfonso Caramazza, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative. “The idea was to create a program that would be interesting for students who are excited about biology and the brain but also about the mind,” says Caramazza.

Conway and Livingstone’s class, “What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain,” will introduce students to the fundamentals of visual neuroscience and then become more hands-on, with trips to local studios and museums so students can more intimately experience the connection between art and science.

The course emphasizes studying art in order to understand how the human mind construes it and what assumptions must be made about the visual system to allow the brain to create such art, according to Caramazza.

“You have both insights into the visual system on the one hand but also insights about the mind that creates the object and that reflects what the visual system is capable of doing,” Caramazza says.

THE PRACTICAL SIDE

Echoing Conway, Livingstone, who studies how art can “reflect and reveal things about what we see,” says that both art and visual neuroscience influence each other.

“Seeing is so easy that we don’t realize that it’s really a bunch of neurons firing away up there,” Livingstone says. “Their whole job is to extract information about the environment, and how these patterns of neurons fire is really a nontrivial thing.”

Artists often use the computations and algorithms performed by the firing of neurons in the brain to produce certain effects in paintings.

For example, a large part of our visual system is color-blind—the parts that are evolutionarily older and are engaged in detecting motion and separation between figure and background, while the more primate-specific areas are color-selective, says Livingstone.

The shimmering in paintings is caused by this very discrepancy between the color-sensitive and color-insensitive parts of the brain. The effect seems magical to the viewer but is based on simple neuroscientific principles.

“Making pictures is something we as viewers consider to be quite a mystical event,” Conway says. “What it underscores is the mystery and the magic of vision itself.”

—Staff writer Alissa M. D’Gama can be reached at adgama@fas.harvard.edu.

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