Friday, July 1, 2011

What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain

Dr. Margaret Livingstone starts speaking at about 5:30

I recently attended a wonderful talk by Dr. Margaret Livingstone, who is a neurobiologist and professor at Harvard. The event took place at Boston University's medical campus, right next to Boston Medical Center. I think there were about 5 artists in the audience, with the rest being medical students and Doctors.  I'll admit that I felt a little out of place, but that didn't matter because I was there to learn something. How often do you get the opportunity to hear someone brilliant speak?

It was interesting being in an audience of scientists. They asked significant questions, which in turn lead on to more learning (for me, at least).

There was a small reception after the talk. By that time, I was experiencing flooding (overwhelmed at the point of being unable to think), and making light conversation with friendly strangers felt like running through an active mine field wearing a flaming backpack with an elephant stampede following me. I stammered a lot, paused a lot, and searched for ordinary words a lot. In short, I was thoroughly embarrassed and anxiety ridden.

But, I didn't let that stop me.

I wanted to ask Dr. Livingstone a question. That was now my purpose. There is nothing else in the world. I must focus.  A new photographer friend, A.J., introduces me to Dr. Livingstone and then proceeds to say "and Heather has a question for you".

And this is what I say....  "the talk was wonderful, it was interesting to hear the scientific terms associated with color and value..."

(and now, I am thinking ...OMG, what was my question??)

Dr. Livingstone is being gracious and kind and brilliant. I am having a conversation with her, only I'm not able to. My vocabulary has now shrunk to "awesome", "fantastic", "wonderful". It's as though I had a whole tool kit in the morning, but have lost 98% of my tools as the day progressed, and I am now reduced to whacking everything with a hammer. I have become verbally limited and am smiling like mad. I can tell you with certainty, that I was thisclose to just telling her how much I like chocolate cupcakes and the number blue. My brain is just throwing any image at me to try to remember that one thing that I have forgotten.

And I still don't know what my question is.  It is at this point that I am abandoning ship. If I don't give up now, I'm not going to have two functional brain cells to get home with.

So, I leave.

When I get home, I try to tell G about how wonderful the talk was. He asks what was so wonderful... and I can only reply in short, vague sentences, because I am fried.  "Color theory". "Optical Illusion". "neurobiology". "cupcakes". None of this satisfies the optical engineer, but he lets it rest because he knows that my brain is running dangerously low. I'm still trying to recall the elusive question for Dr. Livingstone. I don't even have a shade of it in my head. This is tampering with any sense of sanity that I have left.

That night, I am not able to sleep, because my mind is racing. It won't slow down. It is overtired. This, even though I have taken my medication.

The next morning, my mind is fully charged and nimble.

Did you know that Chuck Close can not recognize faces *?

And that was my question.

Agnes, 1998 by Chuck Close

Images in this post are details of Agnes. Click on the above picture to see it larger.

also known as face blindness

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