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Nature and Nurture

Biologically speaking, all humans look at art in much the same way. Our genetic make up allows us to see a spectrum of colors. And our eyes, working together with our brains, are particularly attuned to color, shape and detail, and equipped to perceive depth and motion. While scientists understand how our eyes see the world, they know little about how our brains understand and create art. Making art depends on an inborn creative impulse as well as on skills learned and nurtured through culture.

How It Works: Vision

Open your eyes, and light comes in. This light sets off a chain reaction of chemical and electrical impulses in light-sensitive cells of each eye's retina. These signals travel first to the brain's primary visual cortex, and then to other parts of the brain. Your brain and your eyes work together to see the world.

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Credit: The Granger Collection, New York

The Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci; oil on wood, c. 1503-06.

The science behind the smile

Look at the Mona Lisa's hands, and she seems to smile. But stare straight at her mouth, and her smile fades away. The biology of your eyes helps explain this. Peripheral vision is blurry. You usually depend on it to scan your surroundings and decide where to focus your gaze. Center vision sees crisp, fine details. Artists play with many features of human vision to create illusions like the Mona Lisa's smile.

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© Margaret S. Livingstone

Manipulated Mona Lisas (peripheral vision)

Artistic brain unleashed

Scientists know little about how our brains create art. But they have found a few clues. In rare cases, people with either dementia or a tumor that damages the brain's left temporal lobe experience a sudden flowering of artistic creativity, even as their language and social skills decline. One woman in her fifties who had never taken an art class became a skilled painter within a few years after dementia set in.

Vibrating sun

In Claude Monet's Impression Sunrise the reddish sun appears to pulsate in the sky, perhaps because the colors of the sun and clouds have exactly the same luminance, or lightness. The gray-scale copy shows how similar in luminance the sun and clouds are. With no change in luminance your eyes have trouble defining the edge of the sun. Artists often take advantage of peculiarities of your visual system to create illusions of movement, depth or brightness.

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© Masami Toku/Research Collection 1995

Drawing by Japanese children

Cultural views

All children start with scribbles as they learn to draw. But even at a young age, cultural influences become clear in their art. When asked to draw "my friend and me playing in the school yard," Japanese fourth-graders used a wider variety of perspectives--bird's eye view, exaggerated views and multiple perspectives--than American children the same age. Researchers suggest the Japanese children learned this style from cartoons popular in Japan.

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