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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How Theatrical Lighting Creates Illusion

We’re in the final month of Brainwave at The Rubin Museum in New York, which this year brings together artists and neuroscientists to explore the idea of illusion in different contexts. Sunday evening’s program, held in partnership with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, will pair Tony Award lighting designer Jules Fisher with Harvard vision expert and Dana Alliance member Margaret Livingstone, Ph.D. They will discuss how Fisher’s techniques create illusions. Tickets are available for purchase online.

Dr. Livingstone has studied how the visual system processes different artistic aspects, including form, color, depth, and movement. To learn more, read our 2006 interview “Visual System Processing and Artistic Genius.”

– Ann L. Whitman

Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month: Interview with Margaret Livingstone

Margaret S. Livingstone, Ph.D., is a neurobiology professor at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. Since August is Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month (sponsored by Prevent Blindness America), we decided to check in with Dr. Livingstone, a vision expert.

Livingstone has done extensive work with primates and is the author of the book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing.

When asked about tips for maintaining optimal vision, Livingstone referenced research by Torsten Wiesel and Elio Raviola on myopia (nearsightedness) in monkeys. “You shouldn’t overcorrect myopia. Kids who do a lot of close work will become myopic and if you keep correcting them they’ll get more and more myopic. My kids didn’t ever wear glasses when they read even though they were both slightly nearsighted. They are still slightly nearsighted but they are not profoundly nearsighted like I am.”

There is a growing concern over the amount of time kids spend in front of screens—playing videogames, on the computer, watching television—and whether this could cause nearsightedness. There is debate over the effects of such behavior, but Livingstone sides with the conclusion of a 1996 study that found close exposure to various screens (e.g. sitting too close to the TV) is no different than other forms of “near work.” These activities “will certainly rearrange the way their brains are organized,” Livingstone said. “But so does everything we have intensive early experience with. It’s not harmful, it’s just different.”


–Andrew Kahn

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