Upcoming Events

Events around "What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain"

  • Public talk at 4:00 Wednesday March 22, 208 Math and Sciences, followed by a reception.
  • Lunch with NBB majors and other interested students at 12:00 Thursday March 23 in the NBB suite (1462 Clifton Rd, room 304).
  • Frontiers in Neuroscience talk at 12:00 Friday March  24, Whitehead auditorium.
  • Faculty who would like to meet with Dr. Livingstone or have her visit their lab should email Bob Wyttenbach (rwytten@emory.edu).

What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain

Margaret Livingstone, PhD

Wednesday March 22 in Math and Sciences 208
Talk at 4:00, followed by a reception

Mona Lisa

This is a non-technical talk intended for the general public – all are welcome!

Artists have been doing experiments on vision longer than neurobiologists. Some major works of art have provided insights into how we see; some are so fundamental that they can be understood in terms of the underlying biology. For example, artists have long realized that color and luminance play independent roles. Picasso said, “Colors are only symbols. Reality is to be found in luminance alone.” This reflects the functional subdivision of our visual systems, with color processed by the newer, primate-specific What system, and luminance processed by the older, colorblind, Where system. Many techniques developed by artists can be understood in terms of the organization of our visual systems. I will explore how segregation of color and luminance processing may explain why Impressionist paintings may seem to shimmer, why some op art paintings seem to move, some principles of Matisse’s use of color, and how the Impressionists painted “air.” I will show how differences in resolution across our visual field make the Mona Lisa’s smile elusive and produce dynamic illusions in Pointillist paintings. I will explore how artists have intuited our brains’ processing of faces and objects, and will discuss why learning disabilities may be associated with artistic talent.

Margaret Livingstone

Margaret Livingstone is the Takeda Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. Along with pioneering work in neuroscience, she has explored ways in which neuroscience can understand and inform art. Her book, Vision and Art, has sold over 30,000 copies. She is known in the art world as a scientist who can communicate with artists and art historians. She has presented this work to audiences as diverse as Pixar Studios, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery, The Hirshhorn Museum, The Museum of Fine Art, AAAS, and the Leakey Foundation, as well as countless college and university audiences. 

Sponsored by the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program

Funded in part by the Hightower Foundation


Download a poster of the above information; email Bob Wyttenbach with any questions.

We are scheduling times for Dr. Livingstone to meet with students and faculty. When times and places are set, they will be announced here and by email.


Dr. Livingstone will also speak in the Frontiers in Neuroscience series

Friday March 24 at noon in the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building Auditorium.

Functional modules: How do we get them and what good are they?

There are distinct regions of the brain, reproducible from one person to the next, specialized for processing the most universal forms of human expertise. What is the relationship between behavioral expertise and dedicated brain structures? Do reproducible brain structures mean only certain abilities are innate, or easily learned, or does intensive early experience influence the emergence of expertise and/or dedicated brain circuits? We found that intensive early, but not late, experience influences the formation of category-selective modules in macaque temporal lobe, both for natural stimuli and for stimuli never naturally encountered by monkeys. This suggests that, as in early sensory areas, experience can drive functional segregation and that this segregation may determine how that information is processed. The pattern of novel domain formation in symbol-trained monkeys indicates the existence of a proto-architecture that governs where experience can exert its effects on brain organization. Lastly, I will present data on the normal development of domains in infant monkeys.