The Brain and Art

I just resumed my reading of The Age of Insight, a book by Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist Eric Kandel. It is a unique book that examines the world of art beginning in the early 20th century (with Vienna, Austria as the focal point) in relation to the psychology and physiology of the brain.

I remember studying the physiology of vision and my fascination with the experiments that explained how the brain processes visual information. Kandle reviews the work establishing that physical connections and neuronal interactions in the visual cortex explain optical illusions and other visual phenomena.  Kandel makes the connection between neurobiology and art in a quote from Semi Zeki, a neuroscientist who contributed to the understanding of object recognition:

“The discovery that… cells respond selectively to lines of specific orientation was a milestone in the study of the visual brain. … In a sense, our quest and our conclusion is not unlike those of Mondrian, Malevich and others. Mondrian though that the universal form… is the straight line. … I find it difficult to believe that the relationship between the physiology of the visual cortex and the creations of artists is entirely fortuitous.” [emphasis added] pg 261-2 The Age of Insight, by Eric Kandel Random House, NY 20012

Another great artist, Vassily Kandinsky theorized that, just as there are primary colors, there are primary shapes. If true, this might also be embedded in the circuitry and function of the brain.

Today’s watercolor:

The study below is an homage to edge detection. Neuroscientists (David Hubel, Torsten Wiesel and others) discovered collections of cells the brain’s visual processing pathway that detects edges.

My strips of black and gray do not display the illusion of lighter and darker stripes along the edges (Mach bands); this would be accomplished by more uniform areas (i.e., black and gray paper strips).

I allowed each stripe to fade as the brush ran out of pigment to introduce the element of time and forgetfulness as I discussed in yesterday’s post. Perhaps with age the visual processing circuitry breaks down in a similar manner to that of memory.

Watercolor: Gray Stripes

Gray Strips and Time
12″x9″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

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