October 18, 2002
Biology of Seeing: Harvard Neuroscientist Continues Visual Studies
Series October 24
her talk on October 24, Margaret Livingstone will discuss
connections between neurobiology and art.
do certain landscapes by impressionist painters seem to glow,
shimmer, or even move? Why does Leonardo DaVinci's Mona Lisa seem
to be smiling, except when you look directly at her? Margaret
Livingstone, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School,
will explain how the brain generates such effects of color and
contrast in her talk, titled "Vision and Art: Anatomy, Physiology,
Painting, and Illusion" on Thursday, October 24, at 4:30
pm in the art building's Gamble Auditorium. Livingstone is the
second speaker in The Culture and Nature of the Visual,
the College's yearlong lecture series focusing on visual studies
cosponsored by the Office of the Dean of Faculty and the Weissman
Center for Leadership. On Friday, October 25, Livingstone will
meet with MHC faculty members participating in the visual studies
seminar and will lead a discussion about visual literacy across
Although still rudimentary,
visual science has uncovered the most basic building blocks of
vision. Scientists know, for example, that there are two distinct
visual processing systems in the brain: the colorblind "where
system," which perceives motion, depth, and spatial organization
and is keenly sensitive to small differences in brightness, and
the refined "what system," which sees color but is less
sensitive to luminance contrast.
An expert in how these
two visual systems process information, Livingstone connects the
science of neurobiology to art, a field assumed by many to be
magical, mystical, and unscientific. The shimmering effect in
paintings by Claude Monet and other impressionists, she says,
comes from colors that appear distinct to the dazzled what system,
but become shades of gray to the black-and-white where system.
The elusive, dynamic quality of Mona Lisa's smile can be
explained by the fact that her smile is blurry, so is seen best
by peripheral vision.
what goes on in our brains when we look at a work of art, we can
hope to deepen our appreciation of both the art and science,"
says David Hubel, who wrote the foreword for Livingstone's book,
Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (Harry N. Abrams,
Inc., 2002). Hubel shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in medicine or
physiology, in part for revealing the functional organization
of the visual system. Livingstone's research currently focuses
on how we see depth and motion and on visual differences in people
with learning disabilities.