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Beauty in the eye of the beholder

It’s true; beauty does lie in the eye of the beholder — in the rods and cones of the retina, to be exact. According to Ken Kardong, professor of evolutionary biology in the WSU School of Biological Sciences, it is the neurobiology — or the way that color and light receptors in our eyes respond and how our brains interpret it — that affects our perception of the world.

Kardong last semester presented a short course on sensory perception and experience at a WSU Cougar Conversation. “The Art of Science and the Science of Art” utilized a wide variety of paintings, photographs, collages and optical illusions to show how artists make an impact using the human physiological ability to read colors, contrast, light and shadows.

“Consciously or subconsciously, artists are using traits that are deeply embedded in the way people are built,” said Kardong. “This knowledge largely emerges out of our common evolutionary history.”

For example, self-portraits by the Dutch master Rembrandt use yellows and golds to illuminate the artist within, said Kardong. “He was using his own reaction to colors, not knowledge of neurobiology. His techniques were not all studied (at an academy) but reflect subconscious modes of appreciation.”

These techniques are well known to ophthalmologists, who use the concept to test for color blindness, and in wild predators, who rely on the nuances of black and white vision to capture their camouflaged prey.

Hardwired and relational
Kardong emphasized that people interpret works of art not only according to “hardwired” neurobiological responses and evolutionary history but also in relation to the types of experiences we had as children. “Whether or not you were alive when President Kennedy was assassinated will affect the way you view a composite painting featuring his face,” he said.

Another clever ability of the brain, which affects our perception, is its capacity to fill in missing pieces of information in order to create a logical or expected result. Citing the phenomenon of “phantom pain,” Kardong explained that humans often report feeling sensation in a limb which has been amputated or lost.

“This reaction is not occurring in the poorly regrown nerves of the limb or even in the spinal cord,” said Kardong. “The pain is created in the brain itself as a result of its “expectations” — or mapping — for various parts of the body.”

Our brains also fill in the blanks when we look at random shapes, colors, lines and shadows. This is known as perceptual completion and helps us recognize a geometric shape or object in an abstract scene. This technique is used in the famous appaloosa-in-snow paintings by Bev Dolittle. It is also at work in the vase-with-two-faces illusion.

Another way our brain fills in blanks is called cognitive completion. In this case, the design or shape makes logical sense and our brain just completes the outline. “You see what you expect to see,” said Kardong.

Evolutionary thinking
In essence, our adult perception of art and the world is affected not only by the childhood experiences we enjoyed or dreaded but also by the evolutionary history embedded in our sensory perceptions — sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

“I think we should be incorporating evolutionary thinking into our questions about human character, and what we can become as a consequence of that character,” said Kardong. “Our evolutionary experience is written in the human genome and expressed in our bodies, affecting who we become in the 21st century,” he said.

“Such things as color vision, which most mammals don’t have, as well as a quest to fill a religious yearning are built into our bodies. The capacity for speech is, too, and is a good example of how both childhood and evolutionary history come together to cooperatively create a practice we use as an adult,” said Kardong.

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