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Colour and Vision

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When Turner daubed a red buoy in his seascape Helvoetsluys, what did he mean? In nature, red may repel or attract, signalling toxicity or ripeness, anger, ruddy health or sexual readiness. For Turner, the red created contrast, and in making that mark, he meant to generate salience and arouse interest, to dominate his rivals and draw in his admirers. Colour has long excited emotions and intellectual debate, not only for visual art, but also in philosophy, psychology, and physiology. In contemporary vision science studies, colour helps people find objects faster, discern material properties, learn, conceptualise and memorise. Yet colour is made in the mind, not out there in the world. It is a subjective phenomenon, a personal possession, one that varies between individual eyes, and one that people cling to with ardour when challenged: witness the public divide over the “blue/black”, “white/gold” dress. So the question is not only what does colour mean, in life and in art, but how does it mean anything? How does the human brain create colour, stabilise it, and make its meaning? And why does it evoke emotion and aesthetic appreciation?

Anya Hurlbert is Professor of Visual Neuroscience, Director of the Centre for Translational Systems Neuroscience and Dean of Advancement at Newcastle University, where she co-founded and directed the Institute of Neuroscience. She trained as a physicist, physiologist, neuroscientist and physician, at Princeton, Harvard, MIT and Cambridge. Professor Hurlbert’s research focuses on human vision; she lectures widely on colour perception and art, and has devised and co-curated several science-based art exhibitions, including an interactive installation in the 2014 exhibition Making Colour at the National Gallery, where she was Scientist Trustee.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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