The artist as neuroscientist

Artistic licence taps into the simplified physics used by our brain to recognize everyday scenes, says Patrick Cavanagh.

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Figure 1: By 1467, artists such as Fra Carnevale had mastered consistent perspective but not consistent lighting.

CREDIT: ROGERS AND GWYNNE ANDREWS FUNDS, 1935 (35.121) PHOTOGRAPH © 1983 THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Figure 2: Signorelli takes great liberty with shadows, but goes too far here in making the guard's shadow cross over the satyr's shadow as if it were paint.

CREDIT: PURCHASE, J. PULITZER BEQUEST, 1929 (29.164) PHOTOGRAPH © 2004 THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Figure 3: The dark red areas of the two-tone image of a man's face on the left include both regions of dark shadow and dark pigment (eyebrows, hair, moustache).

CREDIT: G. KIENERK, FLORENCE

Figure 4: An array of cubes all lit from the same direction except one.
Figure 5

CREDIT: ©BETTMANN/CORBIS

Figure 6: No optical distortion of the lemon in the water is shown here and yet the glass and the water appear convincingly transparent.

CREDIT: ©DACS 2005 PHOTOGRAPH: C. SNEE FOR AGNSW

Figure 7: Egyptian artists were the first to depict transparency.

CREDIT: THE ART ARCHIVE/MUSÉE DU LOUVRE PARIS/DAGLI ORTI

Figure 8: When a transparent surface covers a contour in the object behind it, the contour of the transparent surface and the underlying contour cross to form an X-junction.
Figure 9: Two dancers are made up of some of the isolated swatches of colour.

CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE FOGG ART MUSEUM, HARVARD UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUMS, GIFT OF MR AND MRS J. H. HAZEN

Figure 10: When a flat picture is viewed from different angles, the 3D scene can still be perceived without jarring distortions.

CREDIT: ©ADAGP, PARIS AND DACS, LONDON 2005

Figure 11: The blurry global shapes and colours may convey emotional content directly to emotional centres of the brain while the irrelevant fine detail typical of Impressionist pieces distracts conscious perception.

CREDIT: LUNCH AT THE RESTAURANT FOURNAISE (THE ROWERS' LUNCH), PHOTOGRAPH BY R. HASHIMOTO, THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

Figure 12: Vuilleumier et al.17 found that the blurry, fearful face on the right activated the amygdala more than the sharply detailed or unfiltered versions.
Figure 13: Try to determine where the woman is looking.

CREDIT: THE ROKEBY VENUS BY VELASQUEZ/NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON/HTTP://WWW.BRIDGEMAN.CO.UK

Figure 14: These green billiard balls are all shown to reflect the scene that surrounds the ball on the left20.

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Acknowledgements

I thank M. Bernson, E. Besancon, M. Carrio, A. Dietrich, H. Farid, L. Gay, A. Kiely, A. Lonyai, C. Pemberton, D. Wang and R. M. Shapley for their contributions to this work.

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Cavanagh, P. The artist as neuroscientist. Nature 434, 301–307 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/434301a

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