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.


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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Chuck Close SfN Lecture

An artist who can’t recognize faces paints portraits. To most, this would seem ridiculous, perhaps impossible. To Chuck Close, the artist, it is natural.

“I don’t care about landscapes or apples. I care about people. I have no memory of faces in three dimensions,” said Close, who has prosopagnosia, or “face blindness.” At times, Close couldn’t recognize the woman he had lived with for years. But once he paints someone, he can remember their face well enough to identify them in real life. And that is why he does it.

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Society for Neuroscience 2012: New Orleans

You board the plane and look for space to stow your bag and then you notice them: the long black tubes with the carrying strap, like a sheath for arrows. Did you board the wrong flight? Is the plane headed to some remote location for a hunting trip? Wait, you’ve seen them before; the tubes contain posters, information displays for some of the 27,512 Neuroscience 2012 participants heading to New Orleans for the annual conference.

As the plane lands, you notice the person next to you reaching for one of the tubes. “Are you presenting?” you ask. She says yes, and you just have to ask the title of her poster. She inhales deeply and rattles off a 38-word, 144-syllable title before finally exhaling. She’s not done. “In infants,” she adds, which is, coincidentally, the only phrase in the entire title that you understood.

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