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Cognitive and Neuroscientific Approaches to the Arts (December 2018): Precursors and Classic Studies

By Travis Nygard and Lauren S. Weingarden

Precursors and Classic Studies

The classic study of how visual art is perceived was written by psychologist R. L. Gregory. Published in the mid-1960s and now in its fifth edition, Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing begins with the biology of sight, analyzing how eyes and the brain perceive light, and then links it to the visual arts to show how humans experience illusions of reality. Gregory’s book became the authoritative overview of such visual properties as color, movement, and brightness. A related approach was developed by psychologist Rudolf Arnheim during the twentieth century for understanding the cognition of art, extending the psychology of language to the arts. In the mid-1950s Arnheim developed theories of how the appreciation of the visual arts could be understood using general psychological principles. In Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (revised in the mid-1970s), Arnheim emphasized the “perceptual mechanism” and “structured patterns” of how people understand balance, shape, form, growth, space, light, color, movement, dynamics, and expression. Arnheim later followed up with The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts, which presented theories of centricity, composition, enclosure, stability, and nodes. His more general framing of art within the discipline of psychology, Visual Thinking, is also a classic in the field. Similarly, the great art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote several books grounded in the psychology of perception. His Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation focuses on the “psychology of representation,” which is how the human perception of the world creates a natural language of art. His perceptualist model is useful for understanding topics as wide-ranging as optical illusions, caricature, and ambiguous images. Gombrich’s book The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation comprises essays that update, expand, or nuance many of his earlier ideas, including discussions of the cognition of faces, determination of visual truth, perception of movement, and experiments with optics. In Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, Gombrich’s student Michael Baxandall argues that “visual skills and habits become identifiable elements in the painter’s style” in any historical period. Baxandall introduced the concept of “the period eye,” the premise of which is that style issues from a social contract, based on shared cognitive experiences, between a maker (artist) and a viewer (patron). More recent studies in the tradition of Arnheim and Gombrich include Barbara Maria Stafford’s Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images, which focuses on mimesis and pattern recognition in art; D. M. Parker and J. B. Derȩgowski’s Perception and Artistic Style, which offers a compelling psychological explanation of the perception of perspective; and architect Donald Ruggles’s Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture: Timeless Patterns and Their Impact on Our Well-Being, which extends this line of inquiry to spatial design and architectural ornamentation, explaining how fractal patterns, grids, and facades that evoke faces activate the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems of the brain.

Works Cited