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Vision science expert’s unique view: the world through the eyes of the artist

“Artists see better than the rest of us because they think more about what they are seeing and vision is a largely cognitive process…”

Prof Doug Coster paintingEmeritus Professor Doug Coster AO is a retired academic ophthalmologist whose principal interest was in corneal transplantation, laboratory research into transplantation biology and large-scale clinical research. He will be presenting the 2016 Annual Gerrard Crock Lecture on seeing and art tonight at the University of Melbourne.

“Along the way I developed an interest in visual perception and art as I saw a number of artists as patients and was surprised by their vision, which tended to be better than I expected. This was difficult for me to understand – although it shouldn’t have been. Not having a ready explanation for the observation I undertook what has turned out to be a prolonged investigation,” he says.

For Doug it was the stimulus for him to learn how to draw and paint “…something I had no natural talent for and little interest in at the time. It was however necessary to do this in order to appreciate how artists thought about vision. I was surprised to learn artists thought about vision a great deal and had done so for many years.”

Doug’s study of art has led to broader research into history.“Artists are illusionists,” he says.

“Artists began thinking about vision centuries ago – thousands of years ago in some respects. They were the first group of people to pursue an understanding of vision for professional reasons and perhaps not surprisingly they were particularly interested in illusions.

“Science came into the picture much later. In the latter half of the twentieth century experimental psychologists made formal descriptions of the illusions artists had used for centuries and later physiologists were able to establish the neural basis of the illusions.

“Art has given many pointers to science about how the visual system works,” Doug says.

“Personally I have learned a lot about the visual process from artists and their work – as much if not more than I learned in my formal education in ophthalmology. I have also learned why artists see better than the rest of us – the question I first set out to address. Vision is a cognitive process. Light enters the eye but it is the visual brain that makes sense of things. Artists think deeply about the way they are seeing and this helps them cope with the commonly employed clinical tests of vision.

“Visual acuity – the ability to see small details – is tested by asking the patient to read down lines of letters that get progressively smaller and as the letters get too small to be readily recognized the artist will resort to looking for the horizontal, vertical and oblique elements of a letter.

“This is what artists do when analysing an image. We tend to see what we look for.”

Professor Doug Coster AO will present the 2016 Annual Gerrard Crock Lecture on “The art of seeing and seeing of art” 6:30PM tonight at the Kwong Lee Dow Building, Room 230, University of Melbourne.

Listen to a short podcast interview with Professor Coster.