Neuroscience has learned a lot about the way that the brain processes visual information. During the last twenty years, advertisers have learned to exploit these insights to increase their appeal to the consumer. You can like or dislike these techniques. You can find them annoying or even exploitive. And maybe they are. But they are also effective at grabbing our attention and we in the learning community should be aware of them.

This is certainly my most biological article so far, but stick with me. I think it will give you some cool insights into your visual world and into the world of teaching and learning.

To get started, we need to explore our sensory system. Conventional wisdom tells us that we have five sensory systems: Vision, hearing, tactile (touch), olfaction (smell), and taste. In fact, however, we have many more sensory systems, including heat, cold, proprioception (the sense of the relative position of parts of the body), the vestibular sense (an awareness of body balance and movement), among others. Furthermore, researchers have begun to realize that some senses consist of a combination of two or more sensory systems that get fused together by our experience. For example, our experience of vision is the result of two distinct systems that operate concurrently but independently.

The “where system” vs. the “what system”

The two visual systems are known as the “where visual system” and the “what visual system.” These two sensory systems both operate on visual inputs, but they are located in different areas of the brain and they are as different from each other as the sense of sound is different from the sense of touch.

The “where” system was the first to evolve and it is present in all mammals. The “where” system helps organisms with the everyday challenges of survival. This system processes low-acuity images (in computer language it works with a low-resolution image) but it processes that information very quickly. In turn, the “where” system provides animals with motion perception, depth perception, and spatial organization (i.e., the location of objects relative to each other). Interestingly, the “where” system is utterly color blind; it sees the world only in black and white.

The “what” system, on the other hand, evolved much later and it exists as a second visual system but only in primates. The “what” system helps advanced organisms to critically analyze stimuli and make more sophisticated decisions. The “what” system processes high-acuity images (that is, it works with a high-resolution image) but it processes visual information very slowly. This “what” system is less reflexive and provides animals with advanced ability to recognize objects. Hence it got its name, the “what system,” since it tells us what things are. In contrast to the “where” system, the “what” system sees the world in living color (Table 1).

Table 1: The two visual systems compared

What and where in fine art

Let’s have a look at the two systems in action. Take a look at Figure 1, the painting Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet (1872). In this original version, the setting sun and its reflection on the water somehow seem to vibrate against the background. They seem to move behind the clouds and to ripple along with the rise and fall of the water.

Figure 1: Impression, Sunrise, by Claude Monet

How does this happen? Why does it feel so dynamic? The answer has to do with the way that the “where” and “what” systems are processing the information.

To most people, the sun seems brighter and more intense than anything around it. But in fact, the sun is exactly the same brightness as the surrounding images. To prove it, I created this image in Photoshop using the image>adjustments>desaturation tool (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Impression, Sunrise desaturated.

In this black and white image, I removed the colors, but retained the differences in brightness. Note that the sun all but disappears because it is exactly the same brightness as the surrounding objects. Importantly, this is exactly what the “where” system of your brain sees when it looks at this picture. It is unable to see the sun as a distinct object because, from its color-blind perception, the sun is exactly the same brightness as the surrounding stimuli.

In contrast, the “what” system, which is sensitive to colors, immediately recognizes that there is a bright orange object in the picture, and it identifies what that object is, namely, the sun and its reflection on the water.

Why does the sun shimmer?

So why does the sun seem to shimmer? The answer is that your “what” system tells you that there is a sun within the painting. But your “where” system, the part of the brain responsible for position and movement, cannot see it and therefore you have difficulty in determining exactly where the object should appear in the visual space. As you gaze at the image, your brain makes a series of guesses about its position, and this creates the eerie sense of movement.

For those who desire a bit more proof, I offer one more image (Figure 3). In this I used Photoshop to brighten the sun and its reflection so they are now brighter than the background. In this third image, the “where” system can easily see the brighter sun as a distinct object, and as a result it can determine its exact location. The result: the eerie movement disappears.

Figure 3: Impression, Sunrise with no motion

I am not suggesting that Monet understood the physiology of the brain in the way you do. Instead, he probably just did a series of trial and errors until he discovered the illusory movement. It was not until the amazing work of Margaret Livingston and Nobel laureate David Hubel that that we understood the underlying biology of the phenomena.

Exploiting the “where” system

Now that we do understand how the where and what systems work together, some people are able to exploit this process for their own commercial good. Consider the following text samples (Figures 4 and 5). Which is hardest to read?

Figure 4: Is this easy to read?

Figure 5: Is this easy to read?

Almost everyone finds the second image much harder to read. The reason is that in the bottom image, the words and background are equally bright, so your colorblind “where” system does not see the words. As a result, your “what” system is forced to guess the exact location of the letters in space, and hence the letters seem to jump around on the page.

Commercial artists routinely use images like this to draw our attention to their advertisements. But these facts also have implications for trainers and instructional designers as well. The fact that the second image is harder to read means that people have to take longer and work harder to comprehend the words. And you know what? An abundance of evidence shows that when people work harder and take longer studying material, they end up remembering it better. That’s right, forcing people to slow down and work harder will actually increase comprehension, retention, and transfer.

This deserves much more discussion and analysis. Next month we will explore how you can apply this principle to your daily training.

Digging deeper

If you want to know more about this topic, the best textbook is Sensation and Perception, 8th edition published by Cengage Learning. It includes a CD-ROM with lots of insightful activities. If you want to explore the role of vision in the fine arts, you must read Vision and Art, The Biology of Seeing by Margaret Livingstone. Even if you do not understand her every point, it is a pleasure to read and after reading it, you will not see your world the same way again. I have never met Dr. Livingston, but I am a huge fan of her work!

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Goldstein, E. Bruce. Sensation and Perception (with Virtual Lab Manual CD-ROM) (8th ed.). Independence, KY: Cengage Learning (Wadsworth Publishing), 2009.

Livingstone, Margaret and David Hubel. Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (updated and expanded edition). New York: Abrams, 2014.

From the Editor: Want more?

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