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Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing

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We recognize the artistry of Mona Lisa's elusive smile, but is there an underlying science? In this groundbreaking study, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone explains how vision works. She tells us how great painters fool the brain: why Mona Lisa's smile seems so mysterious, Monet's Poppy Field appears to sway in the breeze, Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie blinks We recognize the artistry of Mona Lisa's elusive smile, but is there an underlying science? In this groundbreaking study, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone explains how vision works. She tells us how great painters fool the brain: why Mona Lisa's smile seems so mysterious, Monet's Poppy Field appears to sway in the breeze, Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie blinks like the lights of Times Square, and Warhol's Electric Chair pulses with current.Drawing on history and her own cutting-edge discoveries, Livingstone offers intriguing insights, from explanations of common optical illusions to speculations on the correlation of learning disabilities with artistic skill. Her lucid, accessible theories are illustrated throughout with fine art and clear diagrams. In his foreword, Nobel Prize-winner Hubel posits that neurobiology will enhance the art of the future just as anatomy did in centuries past. That future begins with this fascinating book.


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We recognize the artistry of Mona Lisa's elusive smile, but is there an underlying science? In this groundbreaking study, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone explains how vision works. She tells us how great painters fool the brain: why Mona Lisa's smile seems so mysterious, Monet's Poppy Field appears to sway in the breeze, Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie blinks We recognize the artistry of Mona Lisa's elusive smile, but is there an underlying science? In this groundbreaking study, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone explains how vision works. She tells us how great painters fool the brain: why Mona Lisa's smile seems so mysterious, Monet's Poppy Field appears to sway in the breeze, Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie blinks like the lights of Times Square, and Warhol's Electric Chair pulses with current.Drawing on history and her own cutting-edge discoveries, Livingstone offers intriguing insights, from explanations of common optical illusions to speculations on the correlation of learning disabilities with artistic skill. Her lucid, accessible theories are illustrated throughout with fine art and clear diagrams. In his foreword, Nobel Prize-winner Hubel posits that neurobiology will enhance the art of the future just as anatomy did in centuries past. That future begins with this fascinating book.

30 review for Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    I liked this book because it gave a direct and concise explanation of the preliminary stages of vision from the photoreceptors and signal processing in the eye itself upto the thalamus in the brain. The use of art and optical illusions to explain for function of the preliminary steps in vision and recognition is a great way to make the point. It allows people without a technical bent to grasp and understand the concepts better. I recommend this book to an yone interested in neuroscience and visi I liked this book because it gave a direct and concise explanation of the preliminary stages of vision from the photoreceptors and signal processing in the eye itself upto the thalamus in the brain. The use of art and optical illusions to explain for function of the preliminary steps in vision and recognition is a great way to make the point. It allows people without a technical bent to grasp and understand the concepts better. I recommend this book to an yone interested in neuroscience and vision. My only issue was I would have preferred some of the math behind the signal processing to be included. While I grasp the concepts presented the math helps understand it better and helps me grasp the advantages of one method over another.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Louis

    Seeing is complicated: our eyes are always moving, in part because the center of our gaze receives no light, the optic nerve connection blocks that. Our brain takes in the various light-sensing information and processes different levels of information to compose what we 'see'. The image is upside down, and the brain puts it back. Localized brain damage, such as a lesion, can cause some incredible visual problems for its victims. Some elements of the eye are sensitive to motion, and others handle Seeing is complicated: our eyes are always moving, in part because the center of our gaze receives no light, the optic nerve connection blocks that. Our brain takes in the various light-sensing information and processes different levels of information to compose what we 'see'. The image is upside down, and the brain puts it back. Localized brain damage, such as a lesion, can cause some incredible visual problems for its victims. Some elements of the eye are sensitive to motion, and others handle various elements of color and compare their data to arrive at what 'color' is. For a long time, painters explored how and why we perceive primary colors. In parallel, scientists were trying to determine the same things. It was a while before it was discovered that the secret to "Why red, green, blue" was not out there but in ourselves. The Impressionists dealt with elements of perception, color, motion, hue, contrast, luminance, in ways that shocked their contemporaries but showed deep insight into vision. They weren't just dabbing paint on a canvas, they were exploring color, motion, shimmer, and the moment captured in the eye. This is a terrific book. It helps me understand the Impressionists, all art, and visual elements in nature better. After many trips to the Barnes, I can go back now with a sharper eye. 10/14/13 Addendum: There will be a new edition, with updated and added content, coming out in March 2014. I am looking forward to reading this again.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Gretchen Rubin

    A beautiful book with great information about sight.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Marya

    What a cool book! Livingstone guides readers first through the physics of light, then the physiology of the eye, then the perception of the brain. In other words, she explains just what "green" is, how our eye "sees" green, and how our brains "perceive" green. Then, she drags out some paintings to show how exactly the artist is manipulating this pathway to create their art. While I only read the chapters on color (arrg! Silly hold lists!), the forthcoming chapters on things like perspective and What a cool book! Livingstone guides readers first through the physics of light, then the physiology of the eye, then the perception of the brain. In other words, she explains just what "green" is, how our eye "sees" green, and how our brains "perceive" green. Then, she drags out some paintings to show how exactly the artist is manipulating this pathway to create their art. While I only read the chapters on color (arrg! Silly hold lists!), the forthcoming chapters on things like perspective and luminescence looked great!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    As a neurobiology major, I loved the diagrams and finally understand center-surround activation. As a humanities major, I loved the examples of artists have used color and made use of the eye's biology to add depth to classical paintings, create color experiments in modern paintings, and vibrant colors in Impressionist paintings, using big, separate, pixels of color - like today's HDTV. I am inspired to visit an art gallery to see how much artists have used these techniques! As a neurobiology major, I loved the diagrams and finally understand center-surround activation. As a humanities major, I loved the examples of artists have used color and made use of the eye's biology to add depth to classical paintings, create color experiments in modern paintings, and vibrant colors in Impressionist paintings, using big, separate, pixels of color - like today's HDTV. I am inspired to visit an art gallery to see how much artists have used these techniques!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Coeruleum

    This is the book that invented the false idea "the Mona Lisa isn't really smiling!" No, she is smiling secretively with her mouth closed and Leonardo said as much himself. This book is full of so much disinformation with little redeeming value. Please look elsewhere for "science of art books," which there are plenty of. This is the book that invented the false idea "the Mona Lisa isn't really smiling!" No, she is smiling secretively with her mouth closed and Leonardo said as much himself. This book is full of so much disinformation with little redeeming value. Please look elsewhere for "science of art books," which there are plenty of.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Craig Lawver

    A great book for artists who want to deepen their knowledge off, or explore further, the physical optics of visual art

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mursal Almasi

    It's great! It's great!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Linda Dittes

    Educationally good but certainly not the best book on color and vision that I've read. Educationally good but certainly not the best book on color and vision that I've read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    3Arvizulz3

    Amazing.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Philip

    Great insight on the physical properties of light, the anatomy of the eye, and perception of aesthetics. Includes simplified overview of the visual inputs in the brain. Gives great examples of both art and optical illusion to explain visual perception. A must read for any art or graphic design students that want a deeper scientific insight into why we see what we see. Explained with easy language - no background in physics, biology, or neuroscience is needed to read this book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tassava

    This is an excellent overview of the science and biology of seeing, especially as related to modern art. The author, Margaret Livingstone, a neurobiologist, skillfully presents the scientific material, though some of it is nonetheless pretty tough going. Livingstone, is very good at using a wide range of spectacular diagrams, photos, paintings, and other illustrations to advance her exposition and argument. This argument - and its applicability to how we make and see art - rests on a critical dis This is an excellent overview of the science and biology of seeing, especially as related to modern art. The author, Margaret Livingstone, a neurobiologist, skillfully presents the scientific material, though some of it is nonetheless pretty tough going. Livingstone, is very good at using a wide range of spectacular diagrams, photos, paintings, and other illustrations to advance her exposition and argument. This argument - and its applicability to how we make and see art - rests on a critical distinction between our two overlapping systems of vision. Though colorblind, the older "Where" system of vision is good at detecting small changes in brightness (or what is technically called "luminance"), motion, spatial position or depth, and the general configuration of a scene. The evolutionary newer "What" system, present only in primates, is slightly slower and less sensitive to brightness but is capable of recognizing objects and their characteristics, including color and details. Livingstone's discussion of the Where/What systems roams over topics ranging from the structure of the eye and the arrangement of visual ganglia to the functions of cones and rods and the critical "center/surround" neurons which are sensitive to sharp changes or breaks in luminance, rather than subtle shifts. She also comments more or less in passing on the evolutionary failings of the eye and human vision. We cannot, for instance, see colors in dim light or in darkness: without quite a bit of light, all colors look like black or gray to us, even though one would imagine that an Intelligent Designer would have been able to endow us with the ability to see colors at sunset. All of this neurobiology is adduced to a clear and powerful explanation of why and how certain kinds of art - centrally painting, especially the Impressionists and their master, Monet - work visually. In short, focused sections, she explains, for instance, how Monet achieved remarkable effects such as flowers that seem to sway in the breeze or water that seems to flow or why Ingres' stunning portraits are believable even though he often painted or drew his subjects' faces in far more detail than their bodies or clothes. Three chapters on depth perception effectively show how skilled artists use both artistic rechniques such as perspectival drawing and neurobiological concepts such as stereo vision to achieve depict three-dimensional scenes on a two-dimensional page or canvas. While 2-D depth is itself an illusion, many chapters also include one or more entertaining optical illusions which take advantage of our neurobiology - for instance, the sequential processing of our Where and What systems - to mess profoundly with your mind. (I was impressed by the experiences and the explanations of the perspectival illusion on page 102 and the "scillintiliating grid" illusion on page 56 and the endpapers.)

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bart

    This is a book whose heart is in the right place, an attempt to make an impossibly difficult concept digestible, but one that often slips into rote repetition of its same concepts, repeating them almost invariably, and finally fails to bring its reader very much closer to understanding the neurology of how we see art. There is an exception, a part of the book that is very good: Margaret Livingstone's explanation of how it is that the Mona Lisa seems to smile when one looks away from the mouth, wh This is a book whose heart is in the right place, an attempt to make an impossibly difficult concept digestible, but one that often slips into rote repetition of its same concepts, repeating them almost invariably, and finally fails to bring its reader very much closer to understanding the neurology of how we see art. There is an exception, a part of the book that is very good: Margaret Livingstone's explanation of how it is that the Mona Lisa seems to smile when one looks away from the mouth, while seeming not to smile when one looks directly at the mouth: The fact that her expression changed systematically with how far my center of gaze was from her mouth suggested to me that her lifelike quality might not be so mysterious after all, but rather that her smile must be differently apparent in the different ranges of image detail characteristic of the different parts of the visual field. To see how Mona Lisa's smile would look at different eccentricities, I processed an image of her face to selectively show fine, medium, or coarse components of the image. A clear smile is more apparent in the coarse and medium component images than in the fine detail image. This means that if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa's mouth - which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision - appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea. (p. 71) That is not the sum of this book's revelations, but it is its most rewarding part.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ci

    Less ambitious than Kandel's "Age of Insight", this book links the scientific theories and data from visualization with various art forms (mostly pictorial). While it is useful and helpful to understand how we experience the visual world through our eyes and minds, one can quibble that "art" in the title is overreaching. This is about visualization of color, lines, in various ambient light sources. This is a useful but rather dry book. Less ambitious than Kandel's "Age of Insight", this book links the scientific theories and data from visualization with various art forms (mostly pictorial). While it is useful and helpful to understand how we experience the visual world through our eyes and minds, one can quibble that "art" in the title is overreaching. This is about visualization of color, lines, in various ambient light sources. This is a useful but rather dry book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ogi Ogas

    My ratings of books on Goodreads are solely a crude ranking of their utility to me, and not an evaluation of literary merit, entertainment value, social importance, humor, insightfulness, scientific accuracy, creative vigor, suspensefulness of plot, depth of characters, vitality of theme, excitement of climax, satisfaction of ending, or any other combination of dimensions of value which we are expected to boil down through some fabulous alchemy into a single digit.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jack

    The author shows you human visual anatomy and why, then, you may love some kinds of visual art over others. Different paths for processing light yield different meanings. You can train yourself, perhaps, to choose one form over another. I.e., you can learn to appreciate art you didn't care about before, or simply understand better why walking down a street causes you to see A but not B though both are right there, "in front of your eyes." The author shows you human visual anatomy and why, then, you may love some kinds of visual art over others. Different paths for processing light yield different meanings. You can train yourself, perhaps, to choose one form over another. I.e., you can learn to appreciate art you didn't care about before, or simply understand better why walking down a street causes you to see A but not B though both are right there, "in front of your eyes."

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lulie

    Great book on how vision works, the tricks famous paintings play with our visual system, and explanations of various mysteries of sight. Includes lots of fun examples you can try yourself by just looking. I suspect the author underestimates slightly the ability of the human mind and ideas to affect how we perceive things, but that didn't come out too often in the book. Mostly easy to read even for laymen, with a good helping of colourful diagrams to help out. Great book on how vision works, the tricks famous paintings play with our visual system, and explanations of various mysteries of sight. Includes lots of fun examples you can try yourself by just looking. I suspect the author underestimates slightly the ability of the human mind and ideas to affect how we perceive things, but that didn't come out too often in the book. Mostly easy to read even for laymen, with a good helping of colourful diagrams to help out.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Erika Mulvenna

    Wow! This book has by far the best explanation of how we see color, from trichromatic and opponent systems to processes in the brain. A very good book for anyone who wants an in-depth look at human vision and color theory relating to the fine arts. Great illustrations to aid in understanding the scientific explanations, and later chapters do a good job of relating theories learned to visual art.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Utahpainter

    So far I really like this book it's easy to read and goes into the science of perception. Color frequencies, what colors are more easily seen at night etc. Still I haven't gotten around to finishing it after having it for nearly a year now. So far I really like this book it's easy to read and goes into the science of perception. Color frequencies, what colors are more easily seen at night etc. Still I haven't gotten around to finishing it after having it for nearly a year now.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Amani

    Very accessible book covering a broad spectrum of the basics within western art and the science of visual perception. A good starting place for anyone interested in art and it's relationship to the science of vision (or visa versa). Fondly dubbed "my coffee table textbook." Very accessible book covering a broad spectrum of the basics within western art and the science of visual perception. A good starting place for anyone interested in art and it's relationship to the science of vision (or visa versa). Fondly dubbed "my coffee table textbook."

  21. 4 out of 5

    Xiaorui

    This is quite an academic style pop science book on neurobiology of certain visual art features. It deals with 2D art only.Written by a Harvard Medical School professor, it has a nice mix of scientific diagrams and quite a lot art masterpiece examples.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mary Rose

    I'm not a science person, I'll admit that up front, but this book is really fantastic for learning why art affects us and how seeing art works. I borrowed it off of a friend but I'd consider buying it to have on hand. Very good! I'm not a science person, I'll admit that up front, but this book is really fantastic for learning why art affects us and how seeing art works. I borrowed it off of a friend but I'd consider buying it to have on hand. Very good!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    My very favourite book on perception. I have read it several times over the past few years, grasping more each time about perception, how we translate visual information into meaning, the role of colour, tone, mark size in painting.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Mkovarik

    Couple of typos in figure captions, but overall really interesting!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    This was a very interesting book and I learned a lot about neurobiology. It's not an easy read and is both a magical mix of science and art. I enjoyed it. This was a very interesting book and I learned a lot about neurobiology. It's not an easy read and is both a magical mix of science and art. I enjoyed it.

  26. 4 out of 5

    J.R. Ortiz

    great

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dennis Ross

    Really an excellent presentation of the neurobiology of vision using art as the example.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Pedro Almeida

  29. 5 out of 5

    Grace

  30. 5 out of 5

    Justin

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