Smarter Art


“Artists and neuroscientists explore the same set of questions,” says Dr. Tedi Asher. “They just do so using different approaches.” Both are at work at the Peabody Essex Museum, which recently announced Asher’s year-long appointment as its first neuroscience researcher. The Harvard Med School grad will work with curators to dream up new ideas for enhancing exhibit design and visitor experience. We learned about her leap from the lab to the gallery floor.

On her first focus: I’m starting in on the biology of perception…. Comprehending how the retina is structured can help us to make sense of visual experiences, such as why a star in the sky is better seen out of the corner of your eye than when looking straight at it, and how this phenomenon—as well as concepts regarding contrast, surprise and density of visual information—might inform the presentation of art in the context of a museum.

On points of view: We know certain aspects of our human biology dictate how we perceive sensory stimuli. However, what we do with that sensory input will vary greatly…. A study I read recently demonstrated that art experts look at abstract paintings differently than art novices. By tracking participants’ eye movements, researchers were able to show that art novices were attracted to salient regions of the paintings (e.g., regions with greatest contrast in light or color), while art experts tended to concentrate on other, less salient areas. These findings suggest one’s personal experience of art is, in part, a function of one’s knowledge base. The more expertise you have, the less your attention is influenced by physical features of the work and the more it is impacted by higher-order processes.

On making the most of a museum visit: I wouldn’t go into a museum thinking about how you’re neurologically wired to get the most out of an exhibit; we’ll do that work for you. Rather, I would focus on the aspects of the art that do or don’t elicit an emotional response from you and then pause and consider why that might be.

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