Art & the Mind

Is our visual response to art as equally influenced by neurology as it is by semiotics and cultural experience?  

This week is the deadline for our Dissertation hand in; ten thousand words, countless hours of research, but weirdly I actually enjoyed writing it; here are a few extracts from the introduction and the conclusion ….

Introduction: Is there an argument that what we see is first and foremost as a result of the neurological relationship between our eye and the brain; long before what we know and what we have learnt comes into play?

Conclusion: In looking to form an argument as to whether the human response to visual experiences is influenced by neurology, perhaps there could be an argument that draws parallels between the ocular apparatus and the camera lens. However, to conclude that the human eye can perform in much the same manner as a camera would be grossly inaccurate. We receive light and colour from a scene via the cones and rods in the retina, in much the same way that a camera sensor, or film emulsion, will register light.  However, as Hubel and Wiesel showed us, the light sensitive cells in the brain, unlike camera equipment, are not all created equal (Nobelprize, 2021)  We learn in early childhood how to interpret the signals from the retina, but how this information is stored and used for future visual interpretation is dependent on our own individual experiences. Predictive perception, (Helmholtz, 2021), is the process of the brain constantly updating the model of the world around it, however this model is based on what has already been learnt; the brain will predict what the ocular senses will receive as we saw in the experiment with the kittens in chapter two. Gombrich argued that perception is based on context, a context that is as individual as we are. (Gombrich, 2018) What shapes and patterns we see in clouds are a very good example of this. I would argue that the old adage of ‘we see what we want to see’ could be regarded as being true, although seeing what we want to see is not a conscious act, but an unconscious and complex process played out in the visual cortex of our brain.

If we are to accept that the information received from retina to the brain can never be measurably consistent or universal, where does this information sit with spectator’s interpretation of a painting or photograph? In chapter one Bate  tells us that perspective is already built into the camera body, a perspective drawn from traditional European art, but as we have seen perspective is learnt, it exists not in the natural world, but in mathematics and geometry.(Bate, 2018) Art is created from the perspective of the artists eye, whether this is via the brush or a camera lens, essentially it could be argued what the spectator sees is what the artist sees, our eye can wander around the frame, but it cannot see what lies beyond. If perspective is learnt, and then translated into a painting or photograph that purports to be how reality looked, could we not conclude that it is not how reality looked at all? The Essential Copy, which Bryson argues is for the artist to communicate and the spectator to interpret (Bryson, 1983), I would argue will always be flawed due to individual learnt perception. Continue this argument further and consider that the colours we see are equally a learnt process in the mind, and we can begin to understand that surely the beholders share begins within the visual cortex long before social conditioning and memory are projected on to the canvas. However, this is not a straightforward argument, as Seth points out in chapter three by using the example of Impressionism (Seth, 2019). To what extent does the beholder complete the painting from unconscious learnt perception and what from conscious experience? Pissarro’s, Hoar-Frost at Ennery (Fig 5a) shows the mathematical perspective of the golden ratio overlaid on the painting, but what of the beholders interpretation of the lines traversing the bottom third of the canvas? To perceive these as ploughed furrows is to draw on a memory or cultural knowledge. This twofold interpretation applies to the photographed image as much as it does to a painting. Consider Ut’s image of The Napalm Girl; various crops of this image can be found, but almost all will conform to a mathematical ratio, but the revulsion we feel is as a result of it showing a naked child in pain, which is a conscious response.

Viewing a painting or photograph is complex on many levels, whether that is what is seen by the artist, or what is interpreted by the spectator. We have discussed how cultural influences may shape our appreciation and understanding of a painting or photograph, together with the influences of the apparatus informing the visual cortex. We have also looked at how an image can be viewed differently depending on what context it is seen in. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, arguably the best-known international work of art due to the unquantifiable qualities of the sitter’s enigmatic smile, but what of that smile? Whilst I prefer the romantic supposition that her smile is a result of an illicit connection between the painter and the sitter, I will conclude, as we saw Livingstone explain in chapter three, that it is more likely to be as a result of how our brain compensates for the inadequacies of the retina’s peripheral vision (Blakeslee, 2000) When looking into the eyes of the Mona Lisa our brain sees her smile in the peripheral field of view, and incorrectly fills in the corners of her mouth from the shadows on her face, creating the famous smile that appears to disappear when looked at directly; a result of it then being seen with the central area of the retina, and with much better accuracy. Arguably a somewhat clinical interpretation of such a beautiful painting, however, perhaps there is another discussion to be explored at a later date as to how Leonardo da Vinci was able to paint such a smile. 


Bate, D. (2018) Photography: The Key Concepts. Second edition edn. London: Bloomsbury.

Blakeslee, S. (2000) ’What Is It With Mona Lisa’s Smile? It’s You!’. The New York Times. [online] 21 November. Available at <>

Bryson N. (1983) Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze [online] New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Available at <> 

Gombrich, E. (2018) Art and the Mind [online] Gottingen: V & R Unipress. Available at <>

Helmholtz (2021) Home - Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres [online] Available at <> 

Nobelprize (2021) David H. Hubel - Facts - [online] Available at <> 

Seth, A K.  (2019) ‘From Unconscious Inference to the Beholder’s Share: Predictive Perception and Human Experience’. European Review [online] 27, (3) pp.378-410. Available at <> 

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