artists = neurobiologists of vision

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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Thursday, August 29, 2002 at 10:31AM :

What about sculpture?...
Nature 418, 918 - 919 (29 August 2002)

Trying to make sense of art


Semir Zeki is in the Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology, University College London.

Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing
by Margaret Livingstone
Harry N. Abrams: 2002. 208 pp. $45

Artists differ hugely in their styles and creations, and their art appeals to some and not to others which is another way of saying that one of the characteristics of art is its richness and variety. This no doubt reflects the variability in the organ that creates and appreciates art, the brain. Yet no one has been able to relate the variability in artistic creativity and appreciation to any given brain structure or process, partly because no one knows the neural processes underlying the creative impulse or brain variability. And yet these differences in brain organization, whatever they may turn out to be, are superimposed on a common plan that is characteristic of all brains. It is this common organization that allows us to communicate through art and about art without using the written or spoken word.

This simple message, not by any means a new one, is worth repeating. Its repetition in this extensively illustrated book by Margaret Livingstone, and in the foreword by David Hubel, is to be welcomed. The book may provide yet another stimulus for neurobiologists of vision to study more closely what artists produce, and to use art in trying to further our understanding of the principles underlying the organization of the visual brain. Visual artists are, in a sense, neurobiologists of vision, studying the potential and capacity of the visual brain with techniques that are unique to them. This book illustrates that point well.

Livingstone uses one of the most conspicuous features of the organization of the visual brain the functional specialization of different areas within it for processing different attributes of the visual scene, such as motion, colour, form and faces to explain how we can account perceptually for much that we see in paintings. Not surprisingly, there is more in the book about the colour, motion and depth systems than about the form system, because they are better understood in neurobiological terms. The many illustrations clarify some of the points very well. For example, page 34 provides a convincing answer to the often-asked question of how the colour-blindness that results from cerebral lesions differs from inherited retinal colour-blindness.

Although the text should be accessible to many readers, the parts that relate to the cortex are rather simplistic and ultimately misleading. Many today would not agree with the effort to partition the whole of the visual apparatus, of visual perception and of visual art, into two subdivisions of the brain, the 'what' and the 'where' systems. It is hard, for example, to accept the supposition that cubism is extreme in its spatial imprecision because it is exclusively the product of the spatially imprecise 'what' system. Cubism constitutes a deliberate effort to de-emphasize unique points of view and unique viewing conditions. It almost certainly taps deeply into many of the specialized systems, including the frontal lobes.

It is also unfortunate that not all of the illustrations chosen to make physiological points are perceptually convincing. This makes the book less compelling than it would otherwise have been. I do not see the poppies in the Monet painting reproduced on page 152 as moving or changing position, nor can I detect an illusory motion in the ice floes on page 161. There are several such examples in the book of a conflict between what the text says and what the visual brain experiences.

The coverage itself also sometimes causes problems. It is not easy, for example, to accept the proposition that one's gaze is drawn to the face or eyes in a painting because these are painted in greater detail than the surroundings. There are many counter-examples, unfortunately not given here, where the face is very sketchily drawn but still constitutes the immediate focus of attention. The reason for this is simple. The face carries more information and, correspondingly, the brain has devoted a specialized area to the processing and perception of faces.

There are, happily, many other illustrations that are perceptually much more convincing. Prominent among these are the many visual illusions, some well known and others less so, that are scattered throughout the book. Collectively, these should give the visual scientist a great deal of interesting material to think about. Above all, I hope that through works such as these, visual scientists will come to realize what a rich resource they are provided with by artists who exploit the potential of the visual brain in their creations. Such material is well worth studying scientifically.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2002.

-- Lilly
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