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From Mirror Neurons to the Mona Lisa

From Mirror Neurons to the Mona Lisa
Reported by
Catherine Zandonella

Posted August 04, 2009

Presented By

Science & the Arts at CUNY Graduate Center and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Supported by the David Schwarz family and the National Science Foundation


A painting or sculpture has the power to evoke strong feelings, and it is common to say these feelings reside in the gut, the bones, or the heart. In truth, however, the most important body part involved in our response to art is the brain. Our eyes might act as conduits to relay information to our neural circuitry, but it is the brain that controls the experience of what we see. Beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder, but what is it about the brain that makes us respond to art?

A daylong symposium on November 5, 2005 entitled Visual Art and the Brain sought to explore different facets of the relationship between art and neuroscience. Sponsored by the City University of New York Science & the Arts program and the New York Academy of Sciences, the symposium presented the viewpoints of neuroscientists, science communicators, and artists who work at the interface of these fundamentally different disciplines.

Please use the tabs above to find a meeting report and multimedia from this event.


Web Sites

Akiyoshi's Illusion Pages
Akiyoshi Kitaoka has compiled all of his images demonstrating illusions in visual perception here.

Art Science Research Laboratory
A New York-based, not-for-profit organization, committed to the creation of an intellectual environment and the advocacy of interdisciplinary study for art historians, scientists, artists, designers, and programmers.

Image and Meaning 2
This 2005 conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles brought together distinguished scientists, social scientists, scientific communicators, graphic artists, architects, designers, and writers to explore the processes and means of effective visual communication.

Nature magazine Web Focus: "Artists on Science: Scientists on Art"
A Nature special supplement on the artists and scientists who are bridging the divide with an increasing awareness of each other's heritage. The site features novelists, a composer, artists, and neuroscientists.

Nature magazine Web Focus: "Science in Culture"
A Nature special supplement that discusses artistic works—from the visual arts to dance to cinema—that have been directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, inspired by science.

Science & the Arts at the Graduate Center, The City University of New York, Series
The Science & the Arts series presents programs in theatre, art, music, and dance that bridge the worlds of art and science.

"Where Science Meets Art," National Public Radio's Morning Edition
A series of radio programs that explore the unexpected intersections of two seemingly different disciplines—art and science.


Amato, I. 2003. Super Vision: A New View of Nature. Abrams, New York.

Anker, S. & D. Nelkin. 2004. The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, New York.

Frankel, F. 2002.Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Frankel, F. & G. M. Whitesides. 1997. On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science. Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Freedberg, D. 2002. The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Freedberg, D. 1989. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Hockney, D. Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Studio Books, New York.

Levin, T., U. Frohne & P. Weibel, Eds. 2002. Ctrl [+ Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Levine, M. W. & J. Schefner, Eds. 2000. Fundamentals of Sensation and Perception, 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press, New York.

Livingstone, M. 2002. Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing. Abrams, New York.

Marr, D. 1982. Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. W.H. Freeman and Company, New York.

Ramachandran, V. S. 2004. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers. Pi Press, New York.

Ramachandran, V. S., Ed. 2002. Encyclopedia of the Human Brain. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.

Ramachandran, V. S. & S. Blakeslee. 1998. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Morrow, New York.

Stafford, B. M. 1999. Visual Analogy: Consciousness and the Art of Connecting. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Whyte, W. 1980. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Conservation Foundation, Washington, DC.
The book was also adapted to a 1984 videorecording published by the Municipal Art Society of New York (Cinelab, distributor).

Zeki, S. 1999. Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. Oxford University Press, Oxford.


What Art Can Tell Us about the Brain

Conway, B. R., A. Kitaoka, A. Yazdanbakhsh et al. 2005. Neural basis for a powerful static motion illusion. J. Neurosci. 25: 56515656.

Conway, B. R., D. H. Hubel & M. S. Livingstone. 2002. Color contrast in macaque V1. Cereb. Cortex 12: 915925. Full Text

Howe, P. D. & M. S. Livingstone. 2005. V1 partially solves the stereo aperture problem. Cereb. Cortex Nov 23. (PDF, 648 KB) Full Text [ePublished before print]

Livingstone M. S. & B. R. Conway. 2004. Was Rembrandt stereoblind? N. Engl. J. Med. 351: 12641265.

Tsao, D. Y., W. Vanduffel, Y. Sasaki et al. 2003. Stereopsis activates V3A and caudal intraparietal areas in macaques and humans. Neuron 39: 555568.

Emotion in the History of Art

Smith, A. P., R. N. Henson, R. J. Dolan & M. D. Rugg. 2004. fMRI correlates of the episodic retrieval of emotional contexts. Neuroimage. 22: 868878.

Vuilleumier, P., M. P. Richardson, J. L. Armony et al. 2004. Distant influences of amygdala lesion on visual cortical activation during emotional face processing. Nat. Neurosci. 7: 12711278.

Synesthesia and the Universal Principles of Art

Hubbard, E. M., A. C. Arman, V. S. Ramachandran & G. M. Boynton. 2005. Individual differences among grapheme-color synesthetes: brain-behavior correlations. Neuron 45: 975985.

Hubbard E. M. & V. S. Ramachandran. 2005. Neurocognitive mechanisms of synesthesia. Neuron 48: 509520.

Oberman L. M., E. M. Hubbard, J. P. McCleery et al. 2005. EEG evidence for mirror neuron dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders. Brain Res. Cogn. Brain Res. 24: 190198.

Ramachandran V. S. & W. Hirstein. 1999. The science of art: a neurological theory of aesthetic experience. J. Consciousness Studies, 6: 1551.

Ramachandran V. S. & E. M. Hubbard. 2003. Hearing colors, tasting shapes. Sci. Am. 288: 52-59.

Ramachandran V. S. & E. M. Hubbard. 2001. Psychophysical investigations into the neural basis of synaesthesia. Proc. Biol. Sci. 268: 979-983.

Seeing Science: The Impact of Visuals in Promoting Science to Scientists, and the Public

Fallahi, P., A. C. Bleszynski, R. M. Westervelt et al. 2005. Imaging a single-electron quantum dot. Nano Lett. 5: 223226.

Kaplan L. & E. J. Heller. 1999. Measuring scars of periodic orbits. Phys. Rev. E Stat. Phys. Plasmas Fluids Relat. Interdiscip. Topics 59: 66096628.

Topinka M. A., B. J. LeRoy, S. E. Shaw et al. 2000. Imaging coherent electron flow from a quantum point contact. Science 289: 23232326.

Getting You to Look

Frankel, F. 2004. The power of the "pretty picture." Nat. Mater. 3: 417419.

Zhang S., L. Yan, M. Altman et al. 1999. Biological surface engineering: a simple system for cell pattern formation. Biomaterials 20: 12131220.

The Art and Science of Visual Communication

Bryant, D. J. & B. Tversky. 1999. Mental representations of perspective and spatial relations from diagrams and models. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem. Cogn. 25: 137156.

Morrison, J. B. & B. Tversky. 2005. Bodies and their parts. Mem. Cognit. 33: 696-709.

Tversky, B. 2004. Semantics, syntax, and pragmatics of graphics. In Language and visualization. K. Holmqvist & Y. Ericsson, Eds. Lund University Press, Lund, Sweden.

Tversky, B. 2005. Visuospatial reasoning. In The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. K. J. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison, Eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Tversky, B., M. Agrawala, J. Heiser, et al. (In press). Cognitive design principles for generating visualizations. In Applied Spatial Cognition: From Research to Cognitive Technology. G. Allen, Ed. Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.

Tversky, B., J. Heiser, J., S Lozano, et al. (In press). Enriching animations. In Learning with Animation. R. Lowe & W. Schnotz, Eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Tversky, B., M. Suwa, M. Agrawala, et al. 2003. Sketches for design and design of sketches. In Human Behavior in Design: Individuals, Teams, Tools. U. Lindemann, Ed. Springer, Berlin.

Tversky, B, J. Zacks, P. U. Lee & J. Heiser. 2000. Lines, blobs, crosses, and arrows: diagrammatic communication with schematic figures. In Theory and Application of Diagrams. M. Anderson, P. Cheng & V. Haarslev, Eds. Springer, Berlin.

Zacks J. M. & B. Tversky. 2003. Structuring information interfaces for procedural learning. J. Exp. Psychol. Appl. 9: 88100.

Zacks, J. M. & B. Tversky. 2001. Event structure in perception and conception. Psychol. Bull. 127: 321.

Zacks, J. M. & B. Tversky. 1999. Bars and lines: a study of graphic communication. Mem. Cognit. 27: 10731079.

Zacks, J. M., B. Tversky & G. Iyer. 2001. Perceiving, remembering, and communicating structure in events. J. Exp. Psychol. 130: 2958.

Zacks, J. M., J. M. Ollinger, M. A. Sheridan & B. Tversky. 2002. A parametric study of mental spatial transformations of bodies. Neuroimage 16: 857872.

The Butterfly in the Brain

McEvilley, T. 2002. Suzanne Anker at universal concepts limited – New York. Art in America (December).

Interactive Art and the Exploration of Movement

Acconci, V., 1990. Public space in a private time. Critical Inquiry 16 (Summer).

Zeki, S. 1992. The visual image in mind and brain. Scientific American (September).


Suzanne Anker

School of Visual Arts
email | web site | publications

Suzanne Anker is a visual artist and theorist working at the intersection of art, science, and technology. Her work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums and galleries including the Walker Art Center, the Smithsonian Institute, the Phillips Collection, the J. P. Getty Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Japan, and the Kunsthaus Meran in Italy. Her writings have appeared in Art Journal, Tema Celeste, M/E/A/N/I/N/G, Leonardo, Seed, and Nature Reviews Genetics.

In 2004, Anker coauthored with the late Dorothy Nelkin, The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age, published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. She has hosted and participated in numerous panel discussions such as Monkey Business: Art and Science at the Millennium and Sugar Daddy: The Genetics of Oedipus. She has been visiting artist at the departments of art and architecture, history of science, and Institute for the Humanities and Medicine, all at Yale University. She has recently given talks at the Royal Society in London, the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, EMBL in Heidelberg, and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.

Other projects include cultural collaborations with Giuseppe Testa and Giovanni Testa in conjunction with the Branco-Weiss Fellowship program in Zurich. Anker served on "Altering Nature" a bioethics committee sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Rice University, and the Baylor School of Medicine. She is currently host of "The Bio-Blurb" show on WPS1 Art Radio in collaboration with MoMA in NYC. She is currently chair of the fine arts department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Nell Breyer

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
email | web site

Nell Breyer is a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. She was a digital ARM fellow at Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) in 2003. From 2000-2002, she conducted research on digital video technologies at The Media Laboratory for Arts & Sciences (MIT). She holds an MSc in cognitive neuroscience from Oxford University and an MS in media arts & sciences from MIT. Her work focuses on the intersection of dance, new media, and visual art.

Breyer's piece Time Translations was commissioned and produced by the World Financial Center Arts & Events in 2005. Her recent work, i:move, was first presented at Boston CyberArts Festival and later shown at Dance Theater Workshop gallery. It was further developed and installed at MIT's Media Lab and the MIT Museum Inventor's Spotlight. Breyer's work has been presented in group shows at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, NURTUREart Gallery, Art Interactive, and Photo NY, and she has choreographed and performed in New York, Canada, the UK, Bangladesh, and Slovenia.

Felice Frankel

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
email | web site

Science photographer Felice Frankel is a research scientist in the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Envisioning Science Project.

Working in collaboration with scientists and engineers, Frankel creates images for journal submissions, presentations, and publications for general audisnces. She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design for her previous work photographing the built landscape and architecture.

Frankel is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is also author of Envisioning Science: the Design and Craft of the Science Image and (with George M. Whitesides) On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science.

David Freedberg, DPhil

Columbia University
email | web site

David Freedberg is professor of art history at Columbia University and director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America. His writing focuses on psychological responses to art, iconoclasm and censorship, and Dutch and Flemish art. He has specialized in the history of Dutch printmaking and in the paintings and drawings of Bruegel and Rubens. In more recent years he has turned his attention to 17th-century Roman art and to the paintings of Nicolas Poussin.

Freedberg has been involved in several exhibitions of contemporary art, and has been concerned with the intersection of art and science in the age of Galileo, culminating in his 2002 book, The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History. Although Freedberg continues to teach in the fields of Dutch, Flemish, French, and Italian 17th-century art, as well as in historiographical and theoretical areas, his research now concentrates on the relations between art, history, and the neurosciences. He is currently engaged in writing two books, tentatively titled Dance, the Body, and Emotion and Art and the Brain, which has particular reference to emotion and vision.

Eric Heller, PhD

Harvard University
email | web site

Eric Heller is a professor in the departments of physics and chemistry at Harvard University. His research focuses on few body quantum mechanics, scattering theory, mesoscopic physics and quantum chaos, and freak waves at sea. A recurrent theme in Heller's work involves various aspects of the Correspondence Principle and semiclassical approximations in a variety of physical problems, including nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory. At the other end of the spectrum, the extreme quantum limit (e.g. ultracold collisions, proximity resonances and related effect such as Dicke super- and sub-radiance) is also an ongoing interest.

Heller completed his PhD in chemical physics at Harvard in 1973. After a postdoctoral fellowship with Stuart Rice at Chicago, he became assistant professor of chemistry at UCLA, attaining the rank of full professor in 1982. He left UCLA for a staff scientist position at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1982, and became professor of chemistry at the University of Washington in 1984, where he remained until 1993. At Harvard he has also served as director of the Institute for Theoretical Atomic and Molecular Physics.

Heller is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is also an elected member of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science.

Margaret Livingstone, PhD

Harvard Medical School
email | web site | publications

Margaret Livingstone is professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. She is best known for her work with David Hubel, which showed how different regions of the brain process visual information in parallel and in different ways because of their physiological characteristics. She went on to apply objective, quantitative mapping techniques to primary and extrastriate visual areas, revealing fundamental computational strategies used by the visual system in processing information. She has also looked at differences in visual processing in people with dyslexia, and her work has had influence on the field of learning disabilities.

Livingstone has also explored the ways in which vision science can understand and inform the world of visual art. She is the author of a popular book for nonspecialists, Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, which applies a scientific understanding of vision to the experience of visual art.

V. S. Ramachandran, MD, PhD

University of California at San Diego
email | web site | publications

V. S. Ramachandran is director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the psychology department and the neurosciences program at the University of California, San Diego, and adjunct professor of biology at the Salk Institute. He trained as a physician and obtained an MD from Stanley Medical College and subsequently a PhD from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, where he was elected a senior Rouse Ball Scholar. His early research was on visual perception but he is best known for his work in neurology.

Ramachandran has received many honors and awards including a fellowship from All Souls College, Oxford, an honorary doctorate from Connecticut College, a Gold medal from the Australian National University, the Ariens Kappers Medal from the Royal Nederlands Academy of Sciences, for landmark contributions in neuroscience, and the presidential lecture award from the American Academy of Neurology. He is also a fellow of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla and a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. He was invited by the BBC to give the Reith lectures for 2003, and was the first physician/experimental psychologist to be given this honor since the series was begun by Bertrand Russel in 1949.

Ramachandran is a trustee for the San Diego Museum of Art and has lectured widely on art, visual perception, and the brain. He has published over 120 papers in scientific journals (including three invited review articles in Scientific American), is editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, and author of the books Phantoms in the Brain (with Sandra Blakeslee) and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. His work is featured frequently in the major news media including the BBC and PBS, and Newsweek magazine named him a member of "The Century Club," one of the "hundred most prominent people to watch in the next century."

Devorah Sperber

email | web site

Devorah Sperber is a New York City-based artist whose mixed-media works have been featured in solo exhibitions at the Ljubljana Print Biennale, the Montclair Art Museum, the Centro Medico Train Station in San Juan Puerto Rico, and in solo and group shows in galleries in New York and around the country. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for Sculpture, and will be featured in a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from January 26 through May 6, 2007.

Barbara Tversky, PhD

Columbia University
email | web site | publications

Barbara Tversky studied cognitive psychology at the University of Michigan. She has taught and conducted research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Stanford University, with visits to the University of Michigan, University of Oregon, Harvard University, New York University, and the Russell Sage Foundation, before joining Columbia University in 2005.

Tversky's research has focused on memory, categorization, spatial thinking and language, event perception and cognition, and diagrammatic reasoning. Applications of the work to eyewitness testimony, design, human-computer interaction, visualizations, and science education have provided a human perspective on those issues as have collaborations with a stimulating group of graduate students and colleagues in psychology, linguistics, computer science, anthropology, geography, philosophy, biology, chemistry, architecture, and education.

She has won awards for teaching and software design, is a fellow of a number of societies, has served on the editorial boards of several journals and on the organizing committees of many interdisciplinary and international meetings, and is a member of several national and international committees.

Torsten Wiesel, MD

The Rockefeller University
email | web site | publications

Torsten Wiesel has been president emeritus at the Rockefeller University since 1998, when he stepped down after seven years of service as its president. Under his leadership 30 new laboratories conducting vanguard research in key areas of biology, chemistry, and physics were added, and the renowned Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center joined with Rockefeller. In 1998 Wiesel was elected president of the Paris-based International Brain Research Organization (IBRO), and was named secretary general of the Human Frontier Science Program in 2000. He also serves on numerous boards, and is, since 2002, chair of the board of governors of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Wiesel completed his MD at the Karolinska Institute in 1954. As a postdoctoral student he moved in 1955 to Johns Hopkins, and in 1959 he joined the Kuffler laboratory at Harvard Medical School. He became chairman of the department of neurobiology in 1971. In 1981 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for studies with David Hubel of how visual information collected by the retina is transmitted to and processed in the visual cortex of the brain.

Wiesel joined the Rockefeller faculty in 1983 to head a new laboratory of neurobiology, and later that year he was named the university's Vincent and Brooke Astor Professor. He received the Presidential Award from the Society for Neuroscience in 1998. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, where he presently serves as member of the Council. He served as the chair of the Committee of Human Rights, for the NAS, NAE and IOM 1994–2004. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the New York Academy of Medicine, and is a foreign member of the Royal Society and the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences.

Catherine Zandonella

Catherine Zandonella a science writer based in New York City, covering such topics as environmental science, public health, and applied technology. She has a master's degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. Zandonella has written for a number of publications, including New Scientist, The Scientist, and Nature.

Presented by the Science & the Arts at CUNY Graduate Center and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Supported by the David Schwarz family and the National Science Foundation