Department of Psychology Colloquium Series: Alumit Ishai

December's colloquium speaker is Alumit Ishai, Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at the National Science Foundation. The talk will be held in ICC 103 from 3:30-4:30pm with a reception to follow immediately afterward in WGR 308. 

Abstract and title are as follows:

Title: Neural Correlates of Object Indeterminacy in Art Compositions

Abstract: Visual indeterminacy occurs when subjects view apparently detailed and vivid images that resist object recognition. Indeterminate art works invoke an unusual state of awareness in which the formal aspects of perception (form, color) become dissociated from the semantic aspects (meaning, association).  In this lecture, I will describe a series of behavioral and fMRI studies in which we used representational and indeterminate art compositions to study object recognition, memory and aesthetic judgment.

Our studies show that subjects identified familiar objects not only in easily recognizable paintings but also in indeterminate compositions in which objects are only suggested. The images rated as more aesthetically stimulating were also more likely to be recalled in subsequent memory tests. Paintings evoked activation across a distributed cortical network, where coherent, cluttered scenes activating more the temporoparietal junction, which mediates the binding of visual features and spatial locations, and meaningless, scrambled paintings evoked imagery-related activation, reflecting the strategy subjects used to resolve the object indeterminacy. 

We also found that a short training session on object recognition in cubist paintings, a special class of indeterminate art works, resulted in significant behavioral and neural changes. Trained subjects recognized more familiar objects in more paintings and showed enhanced and differential activation in the parahippocampal cortex. Moreover, trained subjects were slower to report not recognizing any objects, and their longer response latencies were correlated with activation in the fronto-parietal network for spatial attention. Trained subjects, thus, adopted a visual search strategy and used contextual associations to perform the task.

Taken collectively, these studies suggest that the human brain is a compulsory object viewer that automatically sorts indeterminate visual input into coherent images. Our findings also support the ‘proactive brain framework’, according to which the brain uses associations to generate predictions. Art compositions, thus, comprise a special class of stimuli with which various cognitive functions, such as perception, imagery, memory, aesthetic affect, and contextual associations can be investigated. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015 at 3:30pm to 4:30pm

White-Gravenor Hall, 311
37th and O St., N.W., Washington

Event Type

Academic Events


Georgetown College, Psychology


Open to the public and the press?


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