Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The artist as neuroscientist

The artist as neuroscientist
The rules of physics that apply in a real scene are optional in a painting; they can be obeyed or ignored at the discretion of the artist to further the painting’s intended effect. Some deviations, such as Picasso’s skewed faces or the wildly colored shadows in the works of Matisse and other Impressionists of the Fauvist school, are meant to be noticed as part of the style and message of the painting. There is, however, an ‘alternative physics’ operating in many paintings that few of us ever notice but which is just as improbable. These transgressions of standard physics—impossible shadows, colors, reflections or contours—often pass unnoticed by the viewer and do not interfere with the viewer’s understanding of the scene. This is what makes them discoveries of neuroscience. Because we do not notice them, they reveal that our visual brain uses a simpler, reduced physics to understand the world. Artists use this alternative physics because these particular deviations from true physics do not matter to the viewer: the artist can take shortcuts, presenting cues more economically, and arranging surfaces and lights to suit the message of the piece rather than the requirements of the physical world.

In discovering these shortcuts artists act as research neuroscientists, and there is a great deal to be learned from tracking down their discoveries. The goal is not to expose the “slip-ups” of the masters, entertaining as that might be, but to understand the human brain. Art in this sense is a type of found science—science we can do simply by looking.

The article is missing a few images, but it’s a fascinating and insightful read. Maybe it’s the combined effect of the amygdala and conscious image-recognition areas that makes a sharply focused subject set in a blurry background so appealing in photographs and movies.

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