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Margaret Livingstone, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, spoke on how art can unlock the inner workings of the human brain at WEP 2018. Photo by Asharaf Kannearil.
-By David Murphy, KAUST News
Artists have long recognized that color and luminance can play independent roles in visual perception. Picasso once said, "colors are only symbols. Reality is to be found in luminance alone."
Neuroscientists agree with Picasso, believing that the appearance of objects changes from moment to moment. Researchers say the function of the visual brain is to represent objects as they really are, rather than relying solely on the raw data that streams into our eyes.
Margaret Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, sought to enlighten the KAUST community on how art can unlock the inner workings of the human brain during her Winter Enrichment Program 2018 keynote lecture on January 22.
Livingstone's research at Harvard focuses on hormones and behavior, learning, dyslexia, vision and how vision science can understand and inform the world of visual art. Her 2002 book "Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing" was instrumental in raising her profile in the art world as a scientist who can connect and freely communicate the overlap between art and science and how it can affect the human brain.
"For centuries, artists have ignored the laws of physics. If you want to find a painting where the artist is ignoring the laws of physics, look for a painting where a person is looking in a mirror," she said.
"Artists have also known for a long time that color and luminance do different things for you. Picasso cottoned onto the fact that the 'what' and 'where' in vision are quite different. Andy Warhol loved to play with equal luminance in his artwork. Shadows in some well-known paintings reflect the light in the wrong direction," she added.
Livingstone touched on how colors of equal luminance in Monet's "Poppies," make the poppies appear to "sway" in the breeze, and in Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie," the image "blinks." To the naked eye, Warhol's "Little Electric Chair" also seems to "pulse" with a current. Humans actively scan images, something artists have played with to create the illusion of movement in still images.