What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain

Dana Alliance member and Professor of Neurobiology Margaret S. Livingstone, Ph.D., spoke about art and the brain on Tuesday night at this year’s annual Irving H. Jurow Lecture at New York University’s College of Art and Science. Her lecture demonstrated to the audience how looking at art reveals how we see and what mechanisms are at work in the brain to create visual perception.

All artists use lines in their works to create shapes that are interpreted by the brain as specific contours or forms. Center-surround antagonism enables edge detection and contrast enhancement within the visual cortex. Livingstone explained center-surround antagonism as a process by which light creates signals, also known as action potentials, in retinal cells. Certain cells in our visual field are excited while other cells fail to fire. Neurons in our visual cortex are either activated or inhibited to create an accurate depiction or mental map of what we see.

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An illustration in Livingstone’s presentation that demonstrates how color and luminescence affect what we see in markedly different ways.

Painting and art rarely represent realistic accuracy even though they are photorealistic. Shadows, reflections, and perspectives defy the laws of physics and, very often, artists emphasize and play with how our vision works and how we see. Our visual system involves two processing streams that originate from the retina— the higher visual cortex ventral stream (the “what” system) and the older and more ancient dorsal stream (the “where” system). The ventral stream recognizes a specific object such as a bike or an animal and the dorsal system allows us to sense where objects are in space, including depth and position.  The dorsal stream is colorblind—the “what” system can see colors but the “where” system can’t.

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Memory as a Creative Act

Creativity (2).jpgDaphna Shohamy, Ph.D., is more comfortable in her lab at Columbia University than on stage in front of an audience. So why did she agree to participate in the 2018 Brainwave series for a live discussion? Because art and science are more alike than they seem, she said, and she wanted to help explain that.

The series pairs accomplished professionals with neuroscientists for a themed discussion at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. When asked who she would like as a partner for the discussion on the relationship between narrative/storytelling and memory, Shohamy knew right away she wanted to be paired writer Nicole Krauss, author of New York Times bestselling books Great House and The History of Love, because writers truly “understand the force of memory.”

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#Brainweek Partner Interview: Piero Paolo Battaglini

This is the first in a series of Brain Awareness Week partner interviews, in which partners share their experiences and tips for planning successful events. Piero Paolo Battaglini is a full professor of physiology at the University of Trieste in Italy. He is also a member of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain.

Trieste, Olimpiadi delle Neuroscienze 2015 ph Massimo GoinaYour past Brain Awareness Week events have ranged from theatre production to radio shows, and conferences to music concerts. How do you organize such a diverse program each year, and have there been any particularly well-received events that you’d like to highlight?

I live in a University campus (University of Trieste), in a city where there is a second university—the International School for Advanced Studies (ISAS). At both schools, there is a community of neuroscientist who more or less all know each other. What I do yearly is to send an email to everyone I know who might be willing to organize something directly at the University, or through a colleague, Chiara Saviane, who does the same coordination at ISAS. Everybody knows that if they propose something, it is up to them to do it. My contribution is simply to organize the calendar, avoiding overlaps as much as possible. Because of the enthusiasm of the organizers, all events are generally well-received. If I had to rank them, the best events are those where new insight into neuroscience research are given. Among others, neuroscience cafes are often very successful.

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Brain in the News

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Image: Shutterstock

Are you subscribed to Brain in the News? Our free, monthly periodical has been circulating around the globe by the tens of thousands since 1994, keeping readers up to date with trending stories in the field of neuroscience.

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The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

 

Blending art and neuroscience, a new exhibit in New York City showcases the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience. The exhibit opened yesterday at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, and you have until March 31 to take it in.

ramon y cajal astrocytes in hippocampus

A drawing by Cajal of astrocytes in the hippocampus of the human brain. Image: Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid/CSIC

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