Art, Vision and the Brain (2015-2016)

The ambiguities of faces versus objects have long fascinated artists and scientists alike. Importantly, faces, but not objects, play an important role in social interactions from birth. Newborn infants prefer to look at faces and “face-like” images, and there are specific areas of the brain that respond maximally to faces and facial features. Notably, nonhuman primates also attend to faces, discriminate individual identity and social status and follow the gaze of others—just like typically-developing humans—and do so using the same brain circuits. Face processing is a highly adaptive faculty necessary for complex social behavior. When this system does not function properly, as in “face blindness” or autism, the consequences can be severe.

This Bass Connections project team explored a wide range of artworks to examine the perceptual responses to these kinds of stimuli in humans. Team members investigated how differences in image statistics (color, contrast, spatial detail) influence the results and behavioral measures of shape and face salience. They performed eye tracking experiments aimed to uncover the rules governing normal perception of faces that range from representational to abstract depictions, allowing them to measure eye fixations and paths of gaze while people view images drawn from artwork from the Nasher Museum of Art’s collection as well as portraits and photographs from other sources.

Using art to uncover how the brain makes sense of our visual and social worlds, and why our brains respond the way they do to particular kinds of art, team members organized an installation exploring the intersection of art and neuroscience of making faces at the Nasher Museum of Art (March 18-July 24, 2016).


Summer 2015 – Spring 2016

Team Outcomes

A Cognitive Evaluation of Unconscious Markers of Bias: From Implicit Bias to Eye Contact (poster by Anuhita Basavaraju, presented at Visible Thinking, April 19, 2018)

Making Faces at the Intersection of Art and Neuroscience (exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art’s Academic Focus Gallery, March 26 - July 24, 2016)

Making Faces at the Intersection of Art and Neuroscience (exhibition catalogue)

What Are You Looking At? (interactive website)

Student-led gallery talks on Making Faces at the Intersection of Art and Neuroscience (see photos) (March 31, 2016)

Project team demo at DIBS Discovery Day, Brain Awareness Week at Duke (April 3, 2016)

Making Faces: Lessons on Face Recognition from an Unusual Caricaturist (talk by Hanoch Piven, April 7, 2016)

Making Faces: An Interactive Hands-On Workshop with Hanoch Piven (see photos)(April 8, 2016)

Eleonora Lad. Monocytes in Dry AMD: Histopathology and Functional Biomarkers ($140,028 grant awarded by National Institute of Health, 2016)


Nasher Eye Tracking

Bass Connections in Brain & Society: Brain Week 2016


Sophie Katz ’17

Anuhita Basavaraju ’18

This Team in the News

A Student’s Research Takes Her to Denmark to Explore Cognitive Approaches to Social Problems

Student Laurels and Honors for 2017

Students Present Their Research and Learn from Each Other at the Bass Connections Showcase

Twelve Students Receive Grants to Take Their Bass Connections Research Further

New Projects Invigorate Bass Connections Program

Meet the Members of the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council

From Lab to Museum, Students Share Their Brain Research

What Makes a Face? Art and Science Team Up to Find Out

Glamour College Women of the Year; Eye-tracking in Art: The Week at Duke {in 60 Seconds}

Eye Tracking and Art

See related teams, Art, Vision and the Brain: An Exploration of Color and Brightness (2014-2015) and Art, Vision and the Brain: Autism and Face Processing (2016-2017).

This project was selected by the Franklin Humanities Institute as a humanities-connected project.

Image credit: Lonnie Holley, My Tear Becomes the Child, 1991. Pigments on wood, 9 1/2 x 9 1/2 x 1 inches (24.1 x 24.1 x 2.5 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of Bruce Lineker, T'86; 2008.11.6. © Lonnie Holley.

Team Leaders

  • Elizabeth Johnson, School of Medicine-Neurology
  • Eleonora Lad, School of Medicine-Ophthalmology
  • Marianne Wardle, Nasher Museum of Art

/graduate Team Members

  • Kaitlin Henderson, Liberal Studies-AM
  • Xiaoshuang Yin, Electrical/Computer Engg-MS

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Anuhita Basavaraju, Program II (BS)
  • Peter Cangialosi, Neuroscience (BS), French Studies (AB2)
  • Sophie Katz, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Eduardo Salgado, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Christopher Yoo, Biology (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Monica Huerta, Arts & Sciences-Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies
  • Jeffrey MacInnes, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
  • Guillermo Sapiro, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering