Speakers use illusions to inform students on fallacies of perception


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Photo by Lianne Ng |

Panelists speak at the “Talking Creativity: Conversations Between Scientists and Artists” series about the role misconception has in overriding a person’s knowledge on Monday at the Busch Campus Center.


Though usually seen as two entirely separate fields, science and art both stem from creative and perceptual backgrounds.

To highlight the similarities between these fields, Ferris Olin, co-director of the University’s Institute for Women and Art, organized the “Talking Creativity: Conversations Between Scientists and Artists” series, featuring speakers with art and science backgrounds, Olin said.

Maggie Shiffrar, director of the Visual Cognition Lab at Rutgers-Newark, discussed the science of perception at the series’ fourth installment Monday, “Perceptual Illusion: Women in Science and Art Discuss Cognitive Processes.”

Shiffrar spoke of three principles of perception, pointing out that perception is socially constructed, so perception of an object could override a person’s knowledge of it.

“We bring to perception a wealth of other types of information. Perception involves a lot of construction [and] a lot of interpretation of limited bits of information,” Shiffrar said. “Coming up with an interpretation of that ambiguous information is really tricky.”

Ellen Levy, a scholar of both art and science, discussed the phenomenon of inattentional blindness.

“Inattentional blindness is the phenomenon of not being able to see things that are actually there, and I found that in fact this is a very old topic in art,” Levy said. Levy worked as an artist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the Kennedy Space Center, sketching events like the Challenger launch of 1986, which made her ponder why humans sometimes fail to see the obvious.

Levy conducted an experiment to test inattentional blindness through an illusion. She found that individuals frequently failed to see a moving object in the background when looking at the image for the first time because of their attention on the prominent image.

From this experiment, which was briefly demonstrated at the event, Levy concluded that art is able to gain attention, if an individual focuses long enough.

Shiffrar introduced the aspect of illusion to Levy’s discussion of inattentional blindness.

“Inattentional blindness says that the only thing my brain is coming up with is a conscious representation of the one to maybe four things that I am paying attention to. The rest is illusion,” Shiffrar said.

Shiffrar used texting while driving as an example of inattentional blindness, because people cannot pay attention to the road and the cars around them while texting, which makes them more dangerous than drunk drivers.

The discussion between Shiffrar and Levy stressed the importance of perception, awareness and knowledge in the fields of art and science, as well as in everyday life.

“You can only learn what you pay attention to. So if you’re not paying attention to people, then how can you develop levels of visual sensitivity to people?” Shiffrar said.

Jasmeet Bawa, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, attended the talk based on her interest in how science and art overlap.

“I like when people are speaking about things they’re passionate about, things that they’ve studied and dedicated so much of their lives to,” Bawa said. “My interest was also sparked by the fact that the event was focused on women.”

Brittany Graf, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences graduate assistant, said science and art have a lot to gain from each other. She said she could relate to the talks from women in these fields, as she has studied women’s studies in the past and is a scientist herself.

“I definitely learned a lot about the psychology aspect of science and learned that art experiments actually can exist,” Graf said. “The discussion was interesting to see more of the discussion on perception as a whole and how art and science can both ask questions about that.”

Shiffrar said creativity is a dominant aspect of science and is found within experiments and the process it takes to design them. She said she learned to break through constraints in her field to gain the freedom to study what she wanted.

Women make up about 10 to 20 percent of faculty members in science and mathematic fields, said Natalie Batmanian, associate director of the Office for the Promotion of Women in Science Engineering and Mathematics.

She is taking part in an institutional transformation at the University that will make women a more prominent aspect in these fields, Batmanian said.

“I like to be involved in the women in science program, and I believe that science and art have a lot to gain from each other, so this is a very different sort of program that touches on topics that I guess a lot of people don’t cover generally,” she said.

The “Talking Creativity” series is funded by the National Science Foundation, which awarded a five-year grant to the Office for the Promotion of Women in Science Engineering and Mathematics, Batmanian said.

“The grant will end in 2013, and we hope to continue with the programs that we started, like ‘Talking Creativity’ to promote best practices in faculty hiring and promotion and working with administrators and the whole community to bring visibility to women,” she said.


By Skylar Frederick

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