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Theater Season Opens with Thomas Cole, A Waking Dream

German Filmmaker Frank Beyer to Speak at MHC October 23

Family Weekend Set For October 25–27

The Biology of Seeing: Harvard Neuroscientist Continues Visual Studies Series October 24

Impressionist Scholar Robert Herbert to Lecture on Monet

Dance Department Pas de Deux October 25

Where Paradox Rules: The Delightful Trickery of Trompe L'Oeil

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

October 18, 2002

The Biology of Seeing: Harvard Neuroscientist Continues Visual Studies Series October 24

In her talk on October 24, Margaret Livingstone will discuss connections between neurobiology and art.

Why 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 the curriculum.

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.

"By understanding 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.

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