Food for Thought: Visual Illusions Good Enough to Eat [Preview]

Face or food? The brain recognizes edible artwork on multiple levels

Art can be more than just a feast for your eyes. The image at the left looks, at first sight, like a painting of a landscape. But look closer. These are actual photographs of foods laid out to re-create various types of scenery and terrain. London photographer Carl Warner (top right) arranges meats and vegetables to create each environment as if from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and then photographs the scene in layers from foreground to background.

By using solely meats and breads in the image at the bottom right, for example, Warner captures the feel of old sepia postcards from the late 19th-century American prairie—complete with a breadstick-rail fence, serrano ham skies and a salami lane. Yum.

Warner's work is another example of how the brain puts together information from multiple streams. Visual data from every point of the image are converted from light to electrochemical signals in the retina and then transmitted to the brain—where individual features are constructed from the information in the image. These discrete features are broadcast to multiple high-level visual circuits simultaneously: circuits that recognize faces, circuits that detect and characterize motion, circuits that recognize landscapes and places, and circuits that recognize and process food are just a few of the brain paths that receive this basic information.

In Warner's art, both the landscape and the food-processing circuits are activated (the other circuits receive the information but ignore it as irrelevant because there are no faces, motion or other triggers in the image). And voilà! Our mind recognizes a delicious plate of cold cuts, as well as an overcast sky, in the same visual data.

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