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How artists bend the laws of physics and get away with it

The neuroscience of art

Dr. Patrick Cavanagh
(Harvard University)

ABSTRACT: For 40,000 years artists have been pioneers of visual science, discovering techniques that allow them to create compelling impressions of surfaces, light, and objects. Many rules of physics that apply in a real scene are, however, optional in a painting. The artist can choose transgressions of standard physics?such as impossible shadows, colors, reflections or contours?and use these as shortcuts or for effect. Their use often goes completely unnoticed. As artists discover these shortcuts, bending the laws of physics without penalty, they act as research neuroscientists and much can be learned from tracking down their discoveries. The goal is not to expose the "slip-ups" of the masters?as entertaining as that might be. Instead it is to understand the reduced set of rules that the brain uses to comprehend the world.

THE SPEAKER: Patrick Cavanagh was born in Oakville, Ontario in 1947. He received a degree in Electrical Engineering from McGill University in 1968. An interest in artificial intelligence led to a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Carnegie-Mellon in 1972. He taught first at the Université de Montréal in Psychology and in 1989 he moved to Harvard as professor of Psychology. In 2007 he accepted a Chaire d'Excellence at the Université Paris Descartes. His current projects study the roles of visual attention in selecting and creating visual representations, and the properties and strategies of visual attention in normal and brain-damaged subjects. He has also explored how various features such as shadow, color, motion, and texture contribute to representations of visual form. These experiments led to his interest in art as a source of data for neuroscience.

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