Chun talks art, brain

In his Wednesday lecture on art and the brain, Marvin Chun said that certain parts of the brain, known as “reward regions,” are affected by exposure to art.
In his Wednesday lecture on art and the brain, Marvin Chun said that certain parts of the brain, known as “reward regions,” are affected by exposure to art. Photo by Yanan Wang.

Art is not just an experience for the eyes; it also exercises the brain, professor Marvin Chun said at a talk Wednesday.

As a part of the Norma Lytton Lecture Series at the Yale Center for British Art, Chun, who is a professor of psychology, cognitive science, and neurobiology, presented a lecture about visual arts and the brain. Attended by about 180 students, faculty members and staff, the one-hour lecture tackled the overlaps between psychology, neuroscience, and art. Using both works of art, and scientific studies, Chun discussed the role of the brain in determining the character of a person’s aesthetic environment.

“We see a lot more than we think we see,” Chun said. “It’s automatic, it’s irresistible, and it’s intrinsic.”

Chun began the lecture by showing the audience a series of optical illusions demonstrating the tendency for the mind to distort the images presented before it. As Chun explained, the brain discriminates objects to make quick, perceptual decisions based on one’s past experiences and biased interpretations. He showed the audience slides of artworks that manipulated the parts of the brain used for visualization, by creating illusions of differences in color, size and dimension.

Discussing the brain’s limited ability to focus on several different objects at a time, Chun asked audience members to participate in the now famous “Invisible Gorilla” task. The task requires participants to watch a video and count the number of basketball passes performed by a team of people, which distracts their attention from the entrance of a man in a gorilla suit in the background.

“The fundamental challenge for understanding the visual world through sight is that we live in a three-dimensional world, but our visual input is two-dimensional,” Chun said.

Due to the large limitations of a human’s visual capacities, Chun said, the brain is forced to compensate for the missing dimension by perceiving elements of images that do not exist. Shades of color that are not present become present, and inanimate objects take motion.

Chun also linked the power of optical illusions with brain development. He explained how certain regions of the brain — called “reward regions” — are affected by exposure to art. Studies have shown that activity in parts of the brain are heightened when a person views works of art, which in turn heightens activity in regions of the brain that determine writing ability, reading ability, and overall intelligence, he said.

Students who attended the talk said they were intrigued by the links that Chun made between science and art.

“It was cool seeing the value of art through science,” Jessica Buckey ’15 said. “The lecture had a nice mix of science and optical illusions, and it made me want to improve my own visual activity.”

Danna Moustafa ’14 and Jonathan Desnick ’14 agreed that it was interesting to learn that brain development can be enhanced through aesthetic exposure.

“It’s amazing how you can tie [functional magnetic resonance imaging] scans and video games to how we can learn from art — like the idea that art can help with the development of young children,” Moustafa said.

For the past five years, Chun has given a talk at the YCBA as part of its visual literacy program.

Comments

  • margot

    Perhaps Danna Moustafa will continue her interest in how art can help with the development of young children by adding the “doing” of visual art in her research to the hands-off approach of only looking at it. There is much more to be said about the thinking process behind the hands-on perspective.

    Margot Grallert