VSS Public Lecture

Patrick Cavanagh

Université Paris Descartes

Saturday, May 17, 11:00 am
The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida

The Artist as Neuroscientist

A piece of art can trigger many emotions and impressions, many of them just as the artist intended. However, the same painting may also reveal, unintentionally, much about the workings of the brain: how the brain recovers the light and space and surfaces that we see. Painters often stray from photorealistic styles, taking liberties with the rules of physics to achieve a more effective painting. Critically, some of these transgressions of physics such as impossible shadows, shapes, or reflections go unnoticed by viewers – these undetected errors are the ones that tell us which rules of physics actually count for visual perception. As artists find the rules they can break without penalty, they act as neuroscientists and we have only to look at their paintings to uncover and appreciate their discoveries. Which means that 40,000 years of art also counts as 40,000 years of documented, neuroscience research, a record unmatched in any other discipline. We will survey art from cave paintings to the modern era and show how to do “science by looking”, unlocking the discoveries in art every time you give it a painting a second, knowing look.

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Sayim, B., & Cavanagh P. (2011). What line drawings reveal about the visual brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5:118, 1-4