Visual Cognitive Neuroscience and Art


The module discusses the complex problem of how people respond to their visual environments. The module uses fine art as a way of exploring concepts and making cognitive neuroscience interesting and applicable to contemporary life.

The topics covered are diverse, including low level visual processing (and why Op Art and Minimalism tickle our brains), high level processes like attention, visual memory and consciousness (and why some art images are so compelling and effective), and social and emotional processing of visual information as in, for example, human faces (and how this is used in political and commercial propaganda images; what works in portraiture; why some ads work and others don’t).  

No previous knowledge of art is needed but it helps if you like art and are open to experiencing lots of different types of art.  

In each lecture, the class discusses different works, relating them to theory and knowledge of the brain and perception.

Students develop understanding of current psychological theory, develop insight into the application of neuroscientifc methods to complex ‘real-world problems, and have an opportunity to integrate their knowledge across diverse areas within psychology.

The information learned is relevant to students who want to know more about cognitive neuroscience and related research and to students who have an interest in art, marketing, or visual journalism, or, indeed, all of these things.

Module content will be covered though lectures and seminars. Self-directed study will involvereading books, articles and other texts as well as visiting virtual or actual art galleries.


  • Lectures: 10 × 2 hours
  • Tutorials/seminars: 4 × 2 hour
  • Office hours: 10 × 1 hour


  • Literature review coursework (50%): Students will be required to select a topic and write a 2,500 word critical review of the relevant psychological literature on a topic of their choice. 
  • Examination (50%): Group Presentation and Essay: 'Considering Art in a Psychological Science Context'.
    Students will work in teams of 6-7 (depending on class size). As a team they will select a current visual art exhibition (in Birmingham or elsewhere), organise a group visit to the exhibition, and then develop a group presentation (worth 10%) plus individual essay (40%; 1,000 words) that places selected works from the exhibition within the context of a psychological science theme (e.g., emotion expression, perception of colour or contrast, mental health, memory, etc.) of their choosing. The group will present a psychological science perspective of the overall exhibit (10-12 min PowerPoint presentation); individual essays will reflect individual students’ unique views on a subset of works from the same exhibit.

Please note that the format of papers in the supplementary examinations may differ from the equivalent main examination paper or class test. Re-sit and deferral students should check the details of the assessment format of supplementary examinations with the Module Leader.

Key skills

  • Critical thinking
  • Information gathering
  • Writing/written communication