What Do You See In This Image? Your Answer Could Help Crack Your "Brain Code"


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockApr 23 2016, 16:18 UTC
1190 What Do You See In This Image? Your Answer Could Help Crack Your "Brain Code"
"Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire" by Salvador Dalí, 1940. Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use

The surrealist paintings of mustached maestro Salvador Dalí were all about playing with our minds. One of his most famous pieces, “Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire,” is now being used by researchers from Glasgow University to understand how our brains process visual information. The study is published in Scientific Reports.

The oil painting from 1940 features an intentional optical illusion, in which the face of French philosopher Voltaire is made from the image of two nun-like figures. Although you can see both images after you look long and hard enough, people pick up on one before the other.


The researchers studied the brain activity of participants while they viewed the painting, and then asked them to say which of the two images they saw. As anticipated, they noticed that the right hemisphere of the brain processed the left side of the image, while the left side of the brain worked on the right side of the image. Within a fraction of a second, however, the two hemispheres started to communicate with each other and piece together the whole picture.

Image credit: Philippe Schyns et al./University of Glasgow/Scientific Reports

Speaking to the BBC, Professor Philippe Schyns said: "We found very early on, after around 100 milliseconds of processing post-stimulus, that the brain processes very specific features such as the left eye, the right eye, the corner of the nose, the corner of the mouth.”

"But then subsequent to this, at about 200 milliseconds… we also found that the brain transfers features across the two hemispheres in order to construct a full representation of the stimulus."


The mystery of the brain continues, however. The researchers still aren’t clear about the mechanism that dictates which image we initially see. Nevertheless, the team are keen to continue their research on perception and cognition. Professor Schyns also told the BBC that the research will go on to help develop the ability of robots to process visual data, so they can see the world just like their creators.

Main image via Wikipedia

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  • brain,

  • psychology,

  • visual system,

  • neuroscience,

  • painting,

  • Dali