Being Human: Your Brain on Art

Portrait of Henri Matisse by André Derain 1905

Guest blogger Rebecca O’Neill (see bio below) shares her impressions of our June 21st installment of Being Human. Join us for Being Human: Born and Evolved to Run on July 28th. Tickets are available at

The Mona Lisa’s smile has intrigued countless viewers, from art historians to the average tourist walking past it in the Louvre. One moment, she seems to be smiling but then, as your eyes move around the canvas, the smile seems to wane. What is the secret behind this enigma?

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Dr Margaret Livingstone, Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, has figured it

out. It has to do with the way our brains work, more specifically, with how our eyes collect the information and how we interpret that information in our visual cortex.

At a recent Being Human event at San Francisco’s Public Works, Margaret explained that our central vision is better at more precise information gathering while our peripheral vision is better at seeing larger objects. That’s why when you look at a page, you can’t read all the text on it at once – your eyes need to focus in on the text one line at a time to be able to recognize the words.

In the case of the Mona Lisa, if you were to look at the entire painting with your central vision, you’d get a very tight image, with everything in detail, but if you looked at the entire painting with just your peripheral vision, her features are blurry. In the central version, she doesn’t look like she’s smiling very much at all, whereas in the peripheral version, her grin looks like it stretches from ear to ear. In other words, when you look at the painting, your brain is receiving contradicting signals so it is challenging to define her expression.

In addition to the Mona Lisa example, Margaret walked us through a wide range of visual experiences and explained what each demonstrated in terms of our vision.

She told us that a whopping 25% of our brain is dedicated to processing vision. Within that 25%, humans have different areas that specialize in analyzing different aspects of images. For instance, one of the oldest parts of our brain (evolutionarily) is focused on more basic visual information such as depth and motion. Margaret stressed the importance of luminance (how light or dark something is) for those more ancient processes.

Portrait of Henri Matisse by André Derain 1905

Portrait of Henri Matisse by André Derain 1905

André Derain’s  portrait of Henri Matisse is an example of this. At first glance, his use of greens and purples strikes you as jarring but yet, it actually works – you can still make out the contours of his face. That’s because of luminance (or what artists call value) – the greens and purples are darker than the yellows and peaches so register as further away/and or in shadow.

Humans have a more recently evolved part of their brain that is dedicated to deciphering objects. Only other primates share this section. Arguably, the most important object for us (and primates) is the face. In fact, Margaret explained that our face recognition system works by assessing how much the face in front of us deviates from an average face.

Picasso’s portraits exemplify this. Margaret argued that his paintings are like caricatures – he accentuated the sitter’s most striking features, such as a large nose or in his self-portraits, his large eyes.

I personally found the insights fascinating – I am a painter in my spare time and love using color. I will be applying my new knowledge next time I get my brushes out, for example, experimenting with how my eyes interpret a color when it is adjacent to varying colors on the canvas. Choosing to paint a red next to a green may make all the difference to the “mood” of the painting (thanks to them being “complementary” colors – opposite each other on the color wheel).

It turns out that I was joined at the event by many other artists and, in the Q&A part of the event, someone asked Margaret: why do humans make art? Her answer was simple: “We’re social animals – art is communication.”

Artists challenge us all to look at things differently. They convey raw emotion, political ideologies, religious beliefs, aesthetic ideals and much more through their visual representations of the world. It’s up to the viewer (and their highly evolved brain) to decide what to think about it.

About Rebecca O’Neill

unnamedI am a lifelong learner who is a passionate advocate for science and the human capacity for innovation. I have a Bachelors Degree in biology from Oxford University and a Masters Degree in environmental science from Imperial College London. I have worked in a variety of nonprofit, media and business roles to promote environmental conservation. I currently live in Oakland, California and work at SustainAbility, a hybrid think tank and strategic advisory firm working to catalyze business leadership on sustainability.

Charles Darwin has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember. Evolution is one of the most important scientific theories that humans have discovered. I believe that The Leakey Foundation’s mission is a crucial one – we need to understand how we have evolved in order to make better decisions for ourselves, our society and our planet, both now and in the future.

Grantee Spotlight: Amy Lu

Amy Lu

Amy Lu in the field with wild geladas.

Dr. Amy Lu is an assistant professor at Stony Brook University. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2016 cycle for her project entitled “Understanding weaning trajectories in a wild primate – the gelada (Theropithecus gelada).”

Weaning is a critical life history transition for primates and other mammals. In humans, premature weaning can lead to higher infant mortality and poor development outcomes; yet both the causes and consequences of early weaning remain poorly understood in wild primates. More recently, the pace of weaning has also been linked to the development of the gut microbiome, an important system linked to adult health and disease. Thus, developing a comprehensive understanding of weaning should be an important priority in anthropological research.

Our project uses a suite of innovate techniques in isotope biochemistry, photogrammetry, and genomics to characterize weaning relative to growth, gut microbiome establishment, and fitness in a wild primate – the gelada (Theropithecus gelada). In particular, we ask: (1) What is the normative trajectory of weaning in wild infant geladas? (2) How do social factors related to maternal condition or acute events such as a male takeover alter the trajectory of weaning? Here we focus not only on infant age at weaning, but also the timing of weaning relative to growth, which may more accurately represent curtailed maternal investment (i.e., premature weaning). (3) Finally, does premature weaning lead to downstream consequences in survival or the gut microbiome? We will answer these questions by collecting cross-sectional and longitudinal data on ~50 infants from 8 social groups across three years. Results from this study will provide a unique dataset that will explain variable weaning strategies from both a proximate and ultimate perspective.


The Secret Lives of Female Chimpanzees

A mother and baby chimpanzee. Photo by Kevin Langergraber.

Come learn about the fascinating lives of female chimpanzees with Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST) and The Leakey Foundation.

Female apes are often overshadowed by their larger, more boisterous male counterparts. The subtlety of social behavior in female chimpanzees belies a complex set of strategies that allow them to navigate the costs and benefits of group life.

A mother and baby chimpanzee. Photo by Kevin Langergraber.

A mother and baby chimpanzee. Photo by Kevin Langergraber.

By combining decades of behavioral research with innovative non-invasive approaches, Dr. Melissa Emery Thompson and her colleagues at the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda have uncovered fascinating details about the secret lives of female chimpanzees. She will discuss how females negotiate rivalries to obtain the resources they need to reproduce, the chaotic, and sometimes violent, nature of sexual relationships with males, and the unexpected ways these relationships change with age. Along the way, you will learn about the challenges and rewards of studying this fascinating species—one of humankind’s closest relatives—in the wild.

Melissa Emery Thompson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico and a Leakey Foundation grantee. She received her PhD in biological anthropology from Harvard in 2005. She has studied chimpanzee behavior and biology for eighteen years and serves on the board of directors of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, one of the longest-running continuous field studies of great apes.

The Secret Lives of Female Chimpanzees will immediately precede two primate conferences in Chicago: Chimpanzees in Context, a three-day meeting focused on chimpanzee behavior, cognition, conservation and welfare issues, and the joint meeting of the International Primatological Society and the American Society of Primatologists at Navy Pier. Both meetings are hosted by the Lincoln Park Zoo.

DETAILS: Wednesday, August 17th, 2016, 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Chicago Public Library, Harold Washington Center, Cindy Pritzker Auditorium (lower level), 400 South State Street, Chicago, IL 60605.

Doors open at 5:00 p.m. Pre-registration is required. Tickets are $12.

Can’t join us live? Then join us via live stream, or watch the program at your leisure at a later date on C2ST’s YouTube channel, C2ST TV or on The Leakey Foundation’s YouTube Channel. Streaming starts at 6 p.m.

About our partner:

Chicago Council on Science and Technologyc2st-logo-monochrome is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership-based organization that brings researchers and scientists out of the lab and to the public. In an age when barely one in four adults meet a basic level of scientific literacy, we aim to reignite an excitement and passion for science and technology, and remind Chicagoans of the quality and quantity of R&D that takes place in their backyard.

Being Human: Robert Sapolsky Video


Audience participation time at Being Human

Have you joined us at one of our Being Human events?  These are The Leakey Foundation’s cool, casual lectures at Public Works in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. We mix short talks from great minds with fun hands-on experiments, drinks, conversation, and storytelling. At each event we investigate different aspects of our evolution, our behavior, and the human experience.

Our inaugural Being Human in October 2015 featured Robert Sapolsky as a part of the Bay Area Science Festival. In this thought-provoking (and often humorous) talk we explored what makes humans unique and what similar behaviors we share with our primate relatives and other species in the animal kingdom.  As you might imagine, this talk was the perfect start to our lecture series about “Being Human.” Check out the video below!

If you are interested in attending one of our Being Human events, now is the perfect time! We are offering discounted tickets for our next event featuring Dan Lieberman on July 28th. As our very own kick-off for the San Francisco Marathon, we will explore how the human body evolved to run and how evolutionary insights can be used to prevent many kinds of injuries. Rumor has it there will even be a treadmill!  Click here to get your tickets now. Use promo code: TEAMLEAKEY16 for your 30% discount!

Stay tuned for more videos from our first season of Being Human!

Grantee Spotlight: Kelsey Pugh

Kelsey Pugh

Kelsey Pugh

Kelsey Pugh was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2016 cycle for her project entitled “Mid-Late miocene hominoid phylogeny: Implications for ape and human evolution.” She is a PhD candidate from the City University of New York. 

The living great apes, humans, and their fossil relatives (hominids) are among the most intensively studied mammals, yet many aspects of their shared evolutionary history are not well understood. In particular, the positions of many fossil species on the hominid family tree (phylogenetic relationships) are largely unknown or remain highly contentious, despite many recent fossil discoveries.

Excavating a suid mandible from Miocene deposits near Rudabánya, Hungary, with Dr. Jay Kelley

Excavating a suid mandible from Miocene deposits near Rudabánya, Hungary, with Dr. Jay Kelley

My project aims to more accurately infer phylogenetic relationships of hominids, and to use this information to gain a clearer understanding of great ape and human evolution. A better understanding of the hominid family tree will help clarify the evolution of characteristic ape traits and the dispersal patterns of fossil and living apes across Eurasia and Africa. This study will incorporate features from the entire skeleton, with an emphasis on the inclusion of characters from the postcranium in addition to traditional craniodental characters. Updated and modern character analysis and phylogenetic methods will be used to create and test competing hypotheses. Construction of a new and detailed dataset that samples all fossil great ape species, including the potential early hominins Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, and Ardipithecus, will allow me to address questions that are of key interest to paleoanthropologists, including whether these Late Miocene taxa are indeed more closely related to humans than to apes and what locomotor mode preceded upright walking.

This project represents the most comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of Mid-Late Miocene (~16-5 Ma) hominoids carried out to date and will provide the necessary context to frame taxonomic and paleobiological questions pertaining to living apes and humans within the broader context of the Miocene fossil record.