Color and the Brain: Beau Lotto’s Optical Illusions
What tsunamis have to do with online banking, public transit and better street cred for geeks.
By Maria Popova
We’re deeply fascinated by both the inner workings of the brain and the essential role of color in design thinking. Which is why we raved about Beau Lotto’s TED talk when we first saw it live at TEDGlobal this summer. Lotto is founder of Lottolab, a hybrid art studio and science lab, and his fantastic talk is now available for all to see — a remarkable journey into how we see, by way of optical illusions, plays on color and light, and some curious neuro-factoids.
Illusions are often used, especially in art — in the works of the more contemporary artists — to demonstrate the fragility of our senses. This is complete rubbish. The senses aren’t fragile — if they were, we wouldn’t be here. Instead, color tells us something completely different: That the brain didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is — we can’t. Instead, the brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see it in the past.
Much of this, of course, isn’t new — many of the illusions Lotto demonstrates borrow from the famous Ishihara color test, developed by Japanese researcher Dr. Shinobu Ishihara in 1917.
But what we find most interesting is the notion of translating color into sound as it’s closely related to the work of a dear, dear friend — Israeli animation artist and jazz musician Michal Levy, who actually sees music and hears color — a rare phenomeno known as synesthesia, a neurological crossing of the senses that occurs in only a tiny fraction of the population.
Her brilliant short films, Giant Steps and One, embody many of the principles used in Lotto’s translation of children’s paintings into music. (Needless to say, we hope to see Michal speaking at TED one day.)
For a deeper illumination of the brain’s incredible relationship with color and light, check out Lotto’s fantastic book, Why We See What We Do: An Empirical Theory of Vision — a compelling exploration of the visual history of our species, the historical significance of visual stimuli, and the wide-spanning consequences of how our brain sees.
Meanwhile, we’re anxiously awaiting the emergence of more synesthetic projects across the arts and sciences as multimedia environments evolve and interaction artists continue to experiment with the intersection of technology and the senses.
Published October 9, 2009