Galileo’s illusion solved by New York vision researchers

Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1605-1607, by Domenico Tintoretto. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1605-1607, by Domenico Tintoretto. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation.

It was 1632, and the father of modern astronomy was perplexed as to why Venus, when observed by “naked” eye, would appear substantially larger than Jupiter, which was actually four times larger than Venus. He knew that Venus’ exaggerated size must have something to do with it’s halo, or “radiant crown” as he described it, and that this halo must have something to do with his eyes, and not the celestial objects themselves. Observations via telescope presented a more accurate visual representation of the mathematically-verifiable proportions of the planets.

Almost 400 years later, Neuroscientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, eloquently explain the January 2014 published findings of the State University of New York’s vision researchers Jens Kremkow, Jose Manuel Alonso and Qasim Zaidi:

By examining the responses of neurons in the visual system of the brain—to both light stimuli and dark stimuli—the neuroscientists discovered that, whereas dark stimuli result in a faithful neural response that accurately represents their size, light stimuli on the contrary result in non-linear and exaggerated responses that make the stimulus look larger. So white spots on a black background look bigger than same-sized black spots on white background, and Galileo’s glowing moons are not really as big as they might appear to the unaided eye.

These now-isolated differences in how our photoreceptors operate also explain why it is easier to read black text on a white page, than to read white text on a black page, a topic of interest to our typographer and font designer friends.

Do you love Galileo as much as we do? Check out the GLIMPSE Cosmos issue, available in our archives.


GLIMPSE journal is an interdisciplinary supercollider of works that examine the functions, processes, and effects of vision and its implications for being, knowing, and constructing our world(s). Each theme-focused issue features articles, visual essays, interviews, and reviews spanning the physical sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. GLIMPSE contributors are leading and emerging scholars, researchers, scientists and artists from around the world. Some of our contributors are independent thinkers and doers with no formal institutional affiliations, and others are affiliated with the most respected research institutions in the world. Read all about them.

Movement, Orientation, and the Brain

The Mental Mechanics of Motion

Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine in Don Quixote from the Library of Congress Archives

by Myya McGregory

George Balanchine, New York City Ballet master choreographer, once said, “see the music, hear the dance,” implying that dance is felt. Anyone who has ever attempted any type of movement that could be considered dance has probably been told to “feel the music” or perhaps “stop thinking and just move,” which can be frustrating, since in order to disconnect one’s brain, it must first be engaged. Learning new movements is not necessarily an easy task. Those who do it well make it look easy, but everyone goes through the same mental mechanics.

Here is where the production of γ-aminobutyric acid or GABA comes in. GABA is a neurotransmitter that is produced from the decarboxylation of glutamate in the brain.

GABA from the NIST database

Levels of GABA in the motor cortex play a large role in the development of our motor function and how we learn movement sequences. Studies in Current Biology by Stagg, Bachtiar and Berg have shown that the degree of motor learning and a decrease in the the magnitude of GABA are positively correlated. That means that the degree of short-term motor learning increases as GABA levels decrease in the motor cortex. As we try to learn motor functions, we engage the cerebellum which produces the enzyme catalyst that helps turn glutamate, the neurotransmitter that excites our neurons and helps us learn, into GABA which in turn inhibits neural activity.

Streeter et al. conducted a subsequent study that pinpoints what type of activity can increase our GABA levels. His team used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to monitor the levels of GABA in two different participant groups. One group was actively engaged in walking for sixty minutes three times a week for twelve weeks. The other group dedicated that same time to yoga. They found that subjects who participated in yoga had higher levels of GABA in the thalamic system overall. Yoga experts experienced a GABA increase of 26%. Those that were yoga beginners experienced a 13% increase. As you try harder to learn, your brain works to help mitigate GABA, but it’s these increased levels of GABA early on that make the initial learning curve the steepest.

GABA, however, is not completely bad, since it also boosts our mood and helps relieve stress. Therefore, the more you know, the more you can relax and in this case enjoy the calming benefits of yoga.

So next time you’re struggling in a dance class (or a yoga or zumba class, or struggling with any movement based activity for that matter), know that it gets better if you just stick with it — the secret’s in the GABA.

Movement, Orientation, and the Brain

Eiko and Koma: The Revolutionary Dancing Duo

Eiko performing Raven photograph by Fett

by Myya McGregory

Eiko and Koma are dance veterans. The duo, now both over 60, are in fact rather lighthearted in their interviews despite putting on vulnerable and occasionally morbid performances. Now working on an exhibition titled Residue for the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, they continue to explore the intersection of performance art and their signature style,”delicious movement.”

Having  trained with pinoeers Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, their movement style is heavily rooted in Japanese butoh.

Butoh or “Dance of Utter Darkness” drummed up a considerable amount of controversy in Japan as it emerged after World War II. Drawing its influence from the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, butoh showcased movements that originated from a very dark place in Japan’s history. Dancers would powder themselves white, exposing their ghostly, naked bodies on stage, make faces, and move their bodies in extremely vulnerable and contorted ways almost always using small isolated motions. Performances may be haunting or comical, but it is not uncommon for audience members to be moved to tears or outrage.

Performance art takes art to the next level — it’s live art that you can watch and sometimes even participate in.

Eiko and Koma in Raven photograph by Fett

As you will find out in the upcoming Cinema Issue, watching (whether it’s a movie, a theatre performance, or a dance) is akin to experiencing. When you watch you are transported. You are there.

Though the New York Times has called Eiko and Koma’s Hunger “glacial,” their incremental movements have direction, and in slowing themselves down they help the viewer get lost in the details of their movements. Their performances are long, and the average adult attention span (when the mind is not being actively applied) is less than 20 minutes. Naked, for example, was performed at the Walker Art Centre for four weeks during all museum hours. During that time an audience of over 40,000 members came and went. Friends of GLIMPSE who saw the performance said they somehow ended up staying longer than intended. As Eiko and Koma are masters of setting engrossing scenes and telling stories, it is no wonder the audience gets glued to their performances. Eiko and Koma transcend the attention span. Once you engage your prefrontal cortex, you don’t have to concentrate to focus on the scene unfolding before you. You are already sucked in.

Movement, Orientation, and the Brain

A Look at the Work of Pina Bausch

December Dance Show by San Francisco Foghorn

Scientific research has shown that we perceive art (especially movement based art) with the help of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a set of cells in the brain that allow us to recall an action and imagine that action as our own so that we can experience it ourselves either vicariously or viscerally. This is what makes dance specifically such an emotive and provocative art form.

With the passing of the great choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch, many are reflecting on how she hacked the brains of her audience in pushing the boundaries of dance theatre.  As a master of empathy, Pina Bausch was able to explore the range of the audience’s reaction to familiar movements and experiences. As shown in her movie Pina 3D, she was able to work with a wide range of themes while always maintaining the human experience as the common thread.

Her dancers adored her for her compassion and care. She encouraged them to be vulnerable and from there they were able to understand her vision.

Her skill was telling stories of the human experience by incorporating colloquial movement language. One project that did this exceptionally well was «Kontakthof». Performed by three different age groups on different occasions, this piece unearths a series of social issues, fears, and insecurities in a lighthearted and occasionally disturbing manner. The setting however and the dancers themselves were quite colloquial and the dance moves of the dancers were in fact their own. As one watches this piece with dancers of each age group the perception of the piece changes. The same movements on a 15 year old girl will not be read the same on a 65 year old woman. What does this say about our mirror neurons and our ability for perception? Are our brains biased?

Today, more dancers and performance artists are beginning to push the boundaries of our perception with their work by considering the neural responses of their visual cues. Over the course of the next few weeks GLIMPSE  will be continuing this discussion with our readers, so share your thoughts and stay tuned!

Emotional Cartography

Hi Glimpse Followers!

Were you inspired by our Cartography issue? Check out Emotional Cartography, a free collection of essays focused on visualizing biometric data and emotional experiences using technology. Full of essays by artists, psychogeographers, futurologists and neuroscientists, including Raqs Media Collective and Sophie Hope, this PDF is the perfect little holiday present for your brain…check it out!

I Know Kung Fu: Taking strides in visual perceptual learning

Courtesy of Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

“It’s the kind of thing seen in Hollywood’s ‘Matrix’ franchise.”

The National Science Foundation’s analogy comparing the futuristic blockbuster to current visual learning research might initially seem hyperbolic, but researchers at Boston University and the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan have proved once again that it’s only a matter of time before science fiction can become science fact.

In “The Matrix,” the know-how for martial arts or flying helicopters can be downloaded directly into a passive recipient’s brain, and Voila! The body syncs up  and starts performing the “learned” tasks in no time. Back in reality, the December 8th issue of the journal Science published a paper by Kazuhisa Shibata, Takeo Watanabe, Yuka Sasaki, and Mitsuo Kawato in which they present their latest research on visual perceptual learning (VPL). Their findings reveal that it’s possible to target the brain wave patterns of experts like athletes and musicians, and then to induce these patterns in a passive subject’s brain through visual stimuli. The result: participants improve their performance of a task.

Here at GLIMPSE, we continue to marvel at how the strides taken in understanding how we see can fundamentally influence the practice of learning.

Where Am I?

Image courtesy of flickr.com member Aaron Parecki

Most of us know our way around the town or city or suburb where we live. We drive down the same streets, go to the same grocery store, pass the same billboards day after day. An area that was once overwhelming and unfamiliar quickly becomes manageable—we find ourselves able to navigate a new area through repetition, memory, and the ability to create recognizable landmarks. We don’t often question or appreciate this simply because, well, it’s just so natural. Taking the same old route to work everyday becomes mundane and predictable. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if every time you put the keys into the ignition you were scared to death you’d get lost? Places you’ve been to hundreds of times before can seem like new and uncharted territory. This life, this perpetual state of Where am I? is a reality for individuals who have what’s called Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD), and it’s explored spectacularly through Radiolab’s ‘Lost and Found’ episode. What exactly is DTD? It’s caused by an underdeveloped hippocampus, an area of the brain crucial to spatial orientation and the creation of cognitive maps. Unlike people who have difficulty figuring out their surroundings due to an external source like a head injury, those with DTD are born with an inability to cognitively map their surroundings.

The Radiolab episode chronicles the life of Sharon Roseman, a woman who lived the first 30 years of her life scared and confused by her constant disorientation, unsure of what exactly was ‘wrong’ with her. What makes us at GLIMPSE especially interested in this story is the man who diagnosed Roseman with DTD, Dr. Giuseppe Iaria. Iaria is an Assistant Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Calgary and was interviewed for our upcoming Cartography issue. In the interview he speaks about the science behind our cognitive maps (or lack thereof for some)—how we put them together, how we use them, and why the little machine with the soothing voice telling us ‘in .5 miles, turn right’ might be more detrimental to our internal mapping system than we’d like to believe.

If you found yourself interested in the work of Dr. Iaria, be sure to check out our forthcoming Cartography issue.

– Allison Nonko