3Q: The interface between art and neuroscience [MIT News]

This work created by Sarah Schwettmann is on display in the MIT Museum Studio.  Image courtesy of Sarah Schwettmann
April 16, 2019

PhD student Sarah Schwettmann explains how the study of visual perception can translate students’ creativity across domains.

by Connie Blaszczyk | Center for Art, Science, and Technology

Computational neuroscientist Sarah Schwettmann is one of three instructors behind the cross-disciplinary course 9.S52/9.S916 (Vision in Art and Neuroscience), which introduces students to core concepts in visual perception through the lenses of art and neuroscience. Supported by a faculty grant from the Center for Art, Science and Technology at MIT (CAST) for the past two years, the class is led by Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. They are joined in the course by Seth Riskin SM ’89, a light artist and the manager of the MIT Museum Studio and Compton Gallery, where the course is taught. Schwettman discussed the combination of art and science in an educational setting.

Q: How have the three of you approached this cross-disciplinary class in art and neuroscience?

A: Discussions around this intersection often consider what each field has to offer the other. We take a different approach, one I refer to as occupying the gap, or positioning ourselves between the two fields and asking what essential questions underlie them both. One question addresses the nature of the human relationship to the world. The course suggests one answer: This relationship is fundamentally creative, from the brain’s interpretation of incoming sensory data in perception, to the explicit construction of experiential worlds in art.

Neuroscience and art, therefore, each provide a set of tools for investigating different levels of the constructive process. Through neuroscience, we develop a specific understanding of the models of the world that the brain uses to make sense of incoming visual data. With articulation of those models, we can engineer types of inputs that interact with visual processing architecture in particularly exquisite ways, and do so reliably, giving artists a toolkit for remixing and modulating experience. In the studio component of the course, we experiment with this toolkit and collectively move it forward.

While designing the course, Pawan, Seth, and I found that we were each addressing a similar set of questions, the same that motivate the class, through our own research and practice. In parallel to computational vision research, Professor Sinha leads a humanitarian initiative called Project Prakash, which provides treatment to blind children in India and explores the development of vision following the restoration of sight. Where does structure in perception originate? As an artist in the MIT Museum Studio, Seth works with articulated light to sculpt structured visual worlds out of darkness. I also live on this interface where the brain meets the world — my research in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences examines the neural basis of mental models for simulating physics. Linking our work in the course is an experiment in synthesis...

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