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From Cornea To Cortex, The Science Of How We See Art

Bill Roughen

Curator Miranda Lash walks across a first-floor gallery at the Speed Art Museum towards a large, bright canvas.

“This is 'Half Lemon' by Gene Davis,” Lash says. “He was a Washington Color School painter who painted in the 1960s and was known for creating these striped paintings.”

The entire right half of “Half Lemon” (pictured above) looks bright yellow, though upon further inspection, it's a tightly patterned array of yellow and light green stripes. On the left side of the painting, there is a rainbow array of pastel stripes.

At first glance, the painting seems pretty simple, but Lash says she encourages museum visitors to take a closer look.

“The longer you look, the more your eye dances between the stripes of color, the more it goes back and forth — sort of contrasting the yellows on one side to the other,” Lash says.

This, she says, is one of the reasons viewing art in person is a unique experience.

“One of the joys of looking at works of art in person is that they often reward longer looking,” Lash says.

And when you take a look at how our eyes and brains work, this idea is actually supported by science.

Opening Your Eyes

Andrea Smith-Gray is the director of the vision rehabilitation department at the Kentucky Lions Eye Center at the University of Louisville; she breaks down the initial mechanics of sight.

“When you look at something, light enters your eye through the cornea, which is the clear part of the front of your eye,” Smith-Gray says. “And that focuses it through the pupil — which is the black part. Then there’s a lens inside which actually inverts the image and focuses it further onto the back of your eye, and that part is called the retina.”

Bart Borghuis, an assistant professor at U of L who runs a research lab dedicated to studying the retina, explains that the retina is a very thin layer.

“It’s about 200 microns thick and lines the back of the eye,” Borghuis says. “It is a tissue that the lens in the eye projects the image of the outside world upon.”

The retina contains specialized cells called photoreceptors. There are 2 types: rods, which are responsible for vision at low light levels, and cones, which give us color vision.

There is also a small, cone-packed indention in the center of the retina that is responsible for our sharper vision. It’s called the fovea. Our eyes are constantly making small movements to direct our fovea across a scene to build up a clear picture.

William Guido is the chair of the anatomical studies and neurobiology department at U of L. He is a visual neuroscientist who studies how the brain develops circuits to understand the information coming in via the retina.

Guido says that as visual information exits the retina along the optic nerve, it makes a pit stop in a part of the brain called the thalamus. Here, visual scenes are broken down into a variety of elements.

“It gets broken down into dark and bright edges,” Guido says. “It get broken down in terms of color. It gets broken down in terms of lines that are arranged in a vertical fashion versus lines that are arranged in a horizontal fashion.”

'The retina does not care about art'

These neatly broken-down bits of visual information are then sent up to the cerebral cortex — the major command center of the brain — where they are reintegrated and assigned meaning.

This stage is important in a museum setting because, as Borghuis says, “the retina does not care about art.”

But the brain does — or, at least, it has the capabilities to further interpret the image we are seeing.

“The retina will tell you it is pink, but the cortex will give meaning to it and will challenge your ideas in a way that actually this becomes an image you could value as a work of art,” Borghuis says.

One way your brain does this is by recalling prior sensory experiences. Guido explains that there are parts of the brain that act as a library. When you experience some sort of sensory event, it gets stored.

“When other events that are either like that or add onto that event, it gets stored in a similar way,” Guido says. “And so when you need to call on some aspect of your memory, you may go to that shelf in the library and pull it out.”

This is one mechanism that can help us in building up artistic interpretations.

Processing Art Takes Time

But while visual information is transmitted from the retina to the brain in just a few tens of milliseconds, Borghuis says truly looking at artwork -- and allowing our brains to make connections -- is a process that takes more than a cursory look.

“There you actually have to look at it for a while and let the image sink in and the references come.” Borghuis says. “So certainly, artistic or visual experience in that realm doesn’t happen on a half-second timescale. Sometimes it takes weeks before you realize, ‘There’s something in there and that’s what makes this special.’”

Back at the Speed, Miranda Lash is using all these systems -- from her cornea to her cortex -- to absorb the stripes that make up Gene Davis’ “Half Lemon.”

“I really think it takes some time to realize some of the colors are repeated,” Lash says, “And that there is a sort of rhythm between the colors that almost evokes jazz.”

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