The art of perception of art
Dr. Denis Pelli researches how we read, identify shapes, even why we find art compelling.
He is a Professor of Neuroscience at New York University and his life's work is studying how our brains process visual signals: how we read, identify shapes, or what we see when we look at a painting, abstract or not. And on the flip side, Pelli uses art to teach his students to more fully embrace one of the keystones of science: observation.
His research in perception led him to create an eye chart. It is similar to the one at the opthalmologist's office, where the letters get smaller and smaller, but Dr. Pelli's chart measures a different kind of visual acuity. The letters seem to get more and more faint until they disappear.
"With our eye chart, when they read down, they read confidently and accurately, and they stop without making any mistakes. They say, 'There are no more letters.' And then, amazingly, after 15-30 seconds the persons being tested typically say, 'Oh, there is another letter, and there is an 'R' and an 'S' and they will correctly read out the letters."
You don't usually have to look at something for 30 seconds to really see it. Because the letter is so faint, it takes the brain that much longer to realize it. Dr. Pelli's chart ended up being more than a diagnostic tool. It enable him to understand how how the brain resolves the shapes that are hard to see.
This process isn't isolated to letters on a chart. It helps explain why a painting that seems simple keeps us coming back over and over.
"I actually think that is something that (Mark) Rothko exploits in his paintings. He has these what appear to be very crudely painted squares. The visual system is hunting for a solution. In this case, there isn't a solution, so it just keep hunting forever. And I think that that explains part of the descriptions people give of looking at his paintings about being open; it doesn't quite resolve, it doesn't tell you what it is."
Dr. Pelli took this a step further. He placed a filter over some images of Rothko's paintings that reduced their contrast.
"If you reduce the contrast, even by not very much, by a factor of two, it puts it below threshold, and the painting becomes completely flat and uninteresting, whereas most paintings you can reduce by a factor of ten and have very little effect on the impression."
The eye charts that Dr. Pelli were not created with this end result in mind. He was able to follow the twists and turns that led him to his discovery about Rothko simply because he wasn't looking for anything in particular.
He says, "If you are there, looking for toothpicks, well, that is about all you are going to see. But if you are there to just have the experience, you are open to diversion and something can catch your attention."
To be a good scientist, you have to be able to do the same thing -- create new contexts for your observations when the old ones lead to dead ends.
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