As the sun set over the towering Boston skyline, people of all ages filed into the cavernous entrance of the Boston University Photonics Center to attend an event unlike any other. Outside, Mother Nature continued to paint the skies with a distinct color palette of red, orange, pink, and purple. There was a certain artist’s touch to the mid-April light that was slowly fading in the distance. Yet, the attendees were treated to more of the same as they each took their seats in the auditorium. Art was at the core of the night’s conversation, but academic theories would help to explain what it all meant to.
The lecture event titled “How We See Art & How Artists Make It: Stephen Grossberg,” hosted by the BU Arts Initiative, took place on April 19 in an auditorium of the BU College of Engineering. The overarching purpose of this initiative, one in which science and art have been placed in close contact with one another, is to make art a more pronounced and enriching component of academic life. In many ways, this can be a challenging but nonetheless beneficial endeavour in an innovation context where interdisciplinary approaches are the best equipped to succeed.
Students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, finished up night classes and assignments throughout the building as people filed in to hear from an esteemed professor at the university. Stephen Grossberg is the both the Wang Professor of Cognitive and Neural Systems as well as a professor of mathematics & statistics, psychological & brain sciences, and biomedical engineering at BU.
He has contributed extensively to the research literature on brain models, particularly in regards to the brain organizations that give rise to vision and visual object recognition, cognitive information processing and social cognition, and reinforcement learning, among other areas of inquiry. Grossberg cycles between many different hats as a cognitive scientist, theoretical and computation psychologist, mathematician, and biomedical engineer. His work has been accepted and held in the highest regard by researchers in multiple academic circles.
Perhaps Grossberg’s work that best connected to the theme of the talk—the intersection between art and brain processes—was a 2017 paper he wrote alongside Lauren Zajac, a student of his at the time, entitled “How Humans Consciously See Paintings and Paintings Illuminate How Humans See” published in the journal Art & Perception. The paper explained how artistic decisions in paintings had a direct impact on the viewer’s conscious perception of the piece. According to the abstract, “paintings of different artists may activate different combinations of brain processes to achieve their artist’s aesthetic goals.”
This scientific breakdown of conscious perception can be leveraged to achieve the desired response both bottom-up from the painter’s creative process as well as top-down from our expectations of what the painting “looks” like.
From a very young age growing up in Queens, N.Y., Professor Grossberg had a profound appreciation for painting and artistic expression more generally. He loved to draw and paint, so much so that he won a number of citywide prizes that allowed him to take courses at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan—a quick 15-minute train ride from his home. Therefore, his later research regarding the science behind why he and generations of others found the work of artists such as Matisse, Monet, and Frank Stella so captivating was rooted in a passion of his.
“As I began to better understand how we see, I began getting a bit of sense of the kind of artistic struggles other painters and artists went through in order to create the images or other works of art for which we now know them,” said Grossberg. “I would have my own belief about what they must have been trying to do, and then I would read what they said they were trying to do.”
Throughout the talk, Grossberg mentioned that artists, although many of them did not have a background knowledge of the brain, knew what they were trying to get at. Each stroke of the brush against the canvas is analyzed and interpreted by the brain, and Grossberg revealed many of the informational voids that we unconsciously fill in to perceive the works in relation to what we already know about the natural world. For example, he used the Mona Lisa as an example of how we imagine a continuation of the background that sits behind the infamous female visage. Even though her frame disrupts the horizon, we envision an invisible web of boundaries that let us understand that, paradoxically, the landscape behind her exists in its inexistence. Without this unconscious inference on behalf our brains, da Vinci’s painting would arguably lose some of its artistic depth.
Everyone in the audience sat in as students for the hour-long presentation, but it felt like an exploration rather than a lecture. Although Grossberg was not averse to introducing theories of the mind and scientific jargon, the general sentiment in the room was that his words were revealing something quite important about how we interact with the world around us: Sometimes seeing truly is believing.
Featured Image by Alessandro Zenati / Heights Editor