October 5, 2021 at 5:30 pm | Color Coded: in neuroscience and culture

August 31, 2021

Among mammals, excellent color vision has evolved only in certain non-human primates. And yet, color is often assumed to be just a low-level stimulus feature with a modest role in encoding and recognizing objects. The rationale for this dogma is compelling: object recognition is excellent in grayscale images (consider black-and-white movies, where faces, places, objects, and story are readily apparent).

In his Pembroke Center lecture, Bevil R. Conway, a neuroscientist and artist, will attempt to uncover the roots of this dogma, and to dismantle it with arguments from neuroscience, culture, and personal history, to show the pervasive and fundamental role that color plays in perception and cognition.

This lecture is associated with the 2021-22 Pembroke Seminar “Color" and sponsored by the Marshall Woods Lectureships Foundation of Fine Arts.

About the speaker:

Bevil R. Conway, Ph.D., a native of Zimbabwe, Conway trained at McGill University and Harvard Medical School, and earned his PhD in Neurobiology at Harvard University.

Conway has held positions at the Kathmandu University Medical School in Nepal; at Harvard Medical School; at Wellesley College; and at M.I.T. as Principal Research Scientist. He has received fellowships from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the University of Bremen and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard; the Whitehall Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. Conway is an active artist with a studio in Washington D.C.

Research in Dr. Conway's lab aims to understand the normal brain processes by which physical signals that impinge on the sensory apparatus (eyes, ears) are transformed into perceptions, thoughts, and actions. Work in the lab has been especially invested in developing color as a model system. The advantage of color is that its physical basis (wavelength) is well characterized, yet these chromatic signals support not only low-level visual abilities such as color matching but also high-level cognitive processes such as categorization, memory, social cognition, and emotion. This variety of phenomena provides a rich opportunity for investigating the full scope of perceptual and cognitive computations that make human vision such an important source of information about the world. The lab uses many research techniques, including psychophysics and non-invasive brain imaging (MRI, MEG) in humans, along with fMRI-guided microelectrode recording, fMRI-guided pharmacological blockade, microstimulation, tract-tracing, and computational modeling in non-human primates (NHPs). Work in the lab is organized around three broad approaches: First, the use of MRI in humans and NHPs to investigate homologies of brain anatomy and function between these species, to support the applicability of neurophysiology from NHPs to the human case, and to test hypotheses about the fundamental organizational plan of the cerebral cortex in the primate; second, the use of microelectrode recording in NHPs to show on a mechanistic level how populations of neurons drive behaviors such as perceptual decisions and categorization; And third, comparative psychophysical studies in humans and NHPs, as part of a program of neuroethology to understand the relative computational goals of perception/cognition in different primate species. In addition to studies of vision, the lab conducts experiments using auditory and combined audio-visual stimuli, to understand common principles of sensory-cognitive information processing, and to determine how signals across the senses are integrated into a coherent experience.