Research News

Vanderbilt neuroscientists, art museum collaborate on NEA-funded visual cognition research

A pair of Vanderbilt University neuroscientists will collaborate with a Buffalo, New York, art gallery on a two-year project that recently earned a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Research: Art Works program award.

The project is a scientific study testing whether visual art training can enhance visual perception and visual cognition skills. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Innovation Lab has played a key role in bringing together leading experts in visual arts education, visual perception and visual cognition, and other collaborators include the Ontario College of Art and Design University and the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The $85,000 award was one of fifteen, totaling $724,000, announced by NEA Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter to support research projects that investigate the value and impact of the arts, either as individual components of the nation’s arts ecology or as they interact with each other and with other domains of American life.

Cognitive neuroscientist Isabel Gauthier, David K. Wilson Chair of Psychology and head of the Object Perception Lab, and Thomas Palmeri, psychology professor and co-director of scientific computing, are co-principal investigators from Vanderbilt.

“Vision science has only recently begun to reveal great variability in people’s ability to recognize objects, and we still have little knowledge of where these differences come from and how they can be improved,” Gauthier said. “Asking whether visual art training is an important influence on these abilities is a critical multidisciplinary effort in that direction. Visual ability is important to many occupations aside from the visual arts, including medical diagnosis, forensics, and most sciences.”

The team of interdisciplinary partners seeks to combine an art-historical approach to understanding images with a scientific understanding of high-level vision. An arts training program, developed in consultation with OCAD U, will draw from existing museum programs and workshops, as well as basic principles taught in introductory visual studies and visual arts courses, in a series of lessons featuring artworks from the collection of the Albright-Knox. In collaboration with the museum, Vanderbilt will test the impact of the training program on visual perception and visual cognition. The team hopes to use the results of these tests to help shape a curriculum for enhancing high-level visual skills for people from all walks of life, establishing an even more vital role for the visual arts and arts organizations.

The constant bombardment by visual information that characterizes contemporary society demands a highly developed critical ability to observe, memorize and understand the images around us. Past research has found that most current visual training focuses on a single goal, such as learning to identify similar objects in one category. However, many art museums believe that they are uniquely equipped to offer alternative models of training to help people develop the skills needed to navigate, understand and analyze our increasingly visual world. The potential impact of more diverse and varied visual training programs, like those used by museums, has never been studied. The Art of Visual Comprehension team seeks to test scientifically whether the kind of visual arts training museums provide can improve visual perception and visual cognition.

Since little is known about individual differences in visual perception, the findings from this project likely will garner attention from practitioners and researchers in a variety of fields. If the findings are positive, the team plans to use this information to develop a curriculum for enhancing high-level visual skills for the general population.