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20th Jun 2008

Science of Vision and Art

Recent understandings in medical and neuroscience about how we see has tremendous importance for visual artists, and also anyone involved in the art world.

Vision is the primary perceptual sense for anyone who is not seriously vision impaired. Visual perception is so basic that it is the one sense we must shut off when we go to sleep.

The fact that we stand tall, gives us an advantage over most animals on the planet, which is how we developed our reliance and fairly well developed vision. Carnivorous flying birds also enjoy especially excellent eyesight, in some ways usually better than our own, especially birds who hunt at night such as owls or soar the highest, eagles and hawks.

All that our eyes actually perceive are light rays. Those eagle, hawk and owl eyes may perceive more light rays, but we still have better vision. Human beings can see more than any living creature on earth. Why?

Our human brains.

We have binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, infrared lenses and other inventions that allow us to see far beyond the capacity of our eyes, or those of the birds.

Each normally sighted individual had better functional vision based on his or her brain. One half of the back part of the human brain is devoted to the business of seeing. There are over one hundred billion nerve cells in the cortex, the area of the brain that most deals with sight.

As an artist this gives me a kind of job security. Visual art is never going to go out of fashion when half of a person’s brain is devoted to seeing!

Neuroscience has also recently discovered that a person’s brain can continue to grow and expand, make more connections, grow more cells throughout life. In relation to sight they have learned that when a person’s brain is injured, from a stroke, injury or operation that often over time the person can make new connections and that one area of the brain often takes over the former duties of the damaged or missing part.

Therapies, such as Vision Restoration Therapy, based on breakthroughs in neuroplacticity, help people learn how to see when parts of their brains that are necessary for full vision are compromised. Visual exercise for the brain can help create stronger brains and sight.

Medical advances have repaired eyes that were blind in adults who have been blind from birth or early childhood. After the first few operations, after the doctor removes the bandages, examined the patient and declared the operation to be a medical success, the family and friends of the patient gathered around so the patient could see them. Much to their dismay, the newly sighted patient still could not see them!

Although the formerly blind now had eyes, they had no information in their brains to compare the impressions of light that their eyes were receiving to, so they could decode those impressions into meaningful vision. The newly sighted only recognized who was in the room by their voices, being still functionally blind.

If you can read this text you have well trained and sophisticated eyesight, far more sophisticated than that of the majority of people who have lived on earth, just by the fact that you can recognize the different letters one fro another, and then their combinations into words, which you also differentiate.

There is a story, that I have heard in various ways, that seems to be true. Essentially a century or so ago, a missionary, or perhaps it was a doctor or doctor or anthropologist took the chief of a very primitive tribe on a special trip to a city to introduce “civilization”. They went to a museum or special traveling exhibit of famous realistic artists (probably Impressionism was too new to be included back then). The chief looked at the paintings, following his friend who marveled at the works. As they discussed the paintings it became apparent that the chief only saw bright colored stuff (paint). He had no idea that the paint created images, as that is a learned idea and experience. Only after the idea was shown to the chief did he begin to see the images and appreciate the art.

Now science tells us that the more art the chief saw the more experiences data his brain would collect, which would increase his ability to appreciate art. The connections in his brain would increase from his new visual experiences.

People who live in industrialized society where a steady stream of images from PCs, TVs, magazines, billboards, neon signs, images on cell phones, etc., are normal are developing visual vocabularies that allow them to understand visually transmitted information faster with greater depth of understanding than all previous generations.

Perhaps the art market remains booming not only because it is now fully international, but because people of wealth and/or education have a more developed visual sense than ever before, making visual art all the more relevant.

Since so much of the human brain is devoted to sight as it is the dominant sensory perception, and a healthy human brain can continue to make connections, create cells and hence “grow” during a person’s whole lifetime then a visual artist has opportunities, challenges and perhaps self-selected responsibilities beyond other kinds of artists. That humans vision is sighted humanity’s primary perceptual sense gives visual artists a better chance of inspiring and communicating with others, assuming the artist has talent, training and a vision (world view, spirituality, wisdom, etc.) to share and can make it accessible to others.

Great visual art was changing individual lives, including mine as a young girl growing up in NYC, prior to recent scientific discoveries about the way we see and how the brain works. Artists and art lovers knew that art could be meaningful and important; we just didn’t know that humans are especially wired to make visual experiences more relevant than any other kind.

One Response to “Science of Vision and Art”

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