Category Archives: Communication

What do Welders and Van Gogh have in common?

(Sounds like a bad joke, but I promise there is an answer.)

Recently in class we talked about the interesting life of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh had many health problems, one of which he is infamous for: cutting off his own ear. Besides that, he was also afflicted with hallucinations, anxiety, mania, and delirium, just to name a few. The ultimate diagnosis regarding his mental state was never made clear but Van Gogh also had other problems not related to mental health. One problem concerned his vision and the yellow tint that is present in most of his work. There are several circulating hypotheses that describe why this is.

(Yellow) Vase with Fifteen (Yellow) Sunflowers by Van Gogh

Some say this yellow characteristic is attributable to artistic preference. Paul Gauguin, a friend of Van Gogh’s once commented on Van Gogh’s excessive use of the color yellow stating: “Oh yes, he loved yellow, this good Vincent… those glimmers of sunlight rekindled his soul” (Marmor and Ravin, 2009). Other experts attribute this characteristic to possible digitalis intoxication, which causes xanthopsia, a color deficiency (Lee, 1981). What exactly is digitalis? Digitalis purpurea commonly known as foxglove, is a plant with tubular flowers which is now known to be toxic to humans. Today the active ingredient in the plant (digoxin) is used to treat heart rhythm irregularities in small quantities (“Digitalis toxicity”, 2019). However, back in the day, digitalis was used to treat epilepsy, which Van Gogh was diagnosed with by Dr. Gatchet.

Portrait of Dr. Gatchet with a foxglove plant

Xanthopsia is an example of an acquired color vision deficiency. The possibility of acquiring a color vision deficiency is also demonstrated in one study that examines the color vision deficiency prevalence in welders. Welders are usually exposed to a range of light waves including UV rays to infra-red rays, and are also exposed to various gaseous emissions (Heydarian et al., 2017). The authors of this study wondered how this constant exposure to these substances have impacted the vision of the workers. This study was done by comparing the vision of 50 randomly selected male welders from Zahedan city, who had welded for at least 4 years and were around 29 years of age, to 50 randomly selected healthy non-welder men who worked in a hospital and were around 28 years of age.  The color vision of these 100 men were tested with a Farnsworth D-15 test which classifies the type of dyschromatopsia, or color vision disorder, that is being expressed.

Farnsworth D15 Color Test Apparatus

The results show that the prevalence of color vision disorder in welders was significantly higher than that of non-welders (Heydarian et al., 2017). Additionally, there exists a positive relationship between years spent employed as a welder/average working hours and the prevalence of color vision deficiency (Heydarian et al., 2017). Interestingly, blue-yellow impairment is more common (although not significantly) than red-green impairment, which is found to be a common factor in occupation related color vision deficiency overall (Mergler and Blain, 1987). The reason why blue-yellow impairment in occupation related color vision deficiency is more prevalent is not exactly clear but would be a great topic to study further (Gobba and Cavalleri, 2003).

In the end, while we know that Van Gogh did not experience occupation related color vision deficiency, he may have had digitalis induced color vision deficiency. So there you go, both welders and Van Gogh have color vision deficiency in common.


Digitalis toxicity. (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2019, from MedlinePlus website:

Gobba, F., & Cavalleri, A. (2003). Color vision impairment in workers exposed to neurotoxic chemicals. Neurotoxicology, 24, 693-702.

Heydarian, S., Mahjoob, M., Gholami, A., Veysi, S., & Mohammadi, M. (2017). Prevalence of color vision deficiency among arc welders. Journal of Optometry, 10(2), 130-134.

Lee, T. C. (1981). Van Gogh’s vision: Digitalis intoxication? JAMA, 245(7), 727-729.

Marmor, M., & Ravin, J. (2009). Artist’s eyes. New York, NY: Abrams.

Mergler, D., & Blain, L. (1987). Assessing color vision loss among solvent-exposed workers. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 12(2), 195-203.

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Making something look beautiful couldn’t be easier

Even after years of backpacking through museums I still see the same three kinds of gallery visitors: the enthusiasts that try to find the beauty in every piece, the critics that only find value in the works with the most detail or symbolism, and the “oh, that’s cool” troupe that falls in between.  The visitors I saw during my trip to the Musée de l’Orangeire, unfortunately, fell into similar categories.  I suppose I expected to see more enthusiasts in Paris than I had in the United States considering the number of statues and beautiful architecture I discover each day just on my commute to class.

The moment I realized th1at Parisian gallery visitors act no different than those back home happened when I spotted a series of painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  I couldn’t help to stop and stare at his work.  One painting in particular titled “Jeunes filles au piano” really caught my attention.


“Jeunes filles au piano” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir


I identify as a sculpture, a monochromatic one at that, and yet I was captivated by Renior’s palate choice for this painting.  Everything from his brush strokes to the wrinkles of the girls’ clothing to drew the finer details in the chair, dresses, and facial expressions kept me rooted to my spot in awe.  A couple speaking in French broke me from my trance when walked up beside me, pointed the image, then carried on as if not impressed.  A moment later I realized that I stood alone at the paint, the only person  in the room giving it much attention while standing in others walked by it.

Everyone has different kinds of perception and perspectives on art, and yet at time we all interpret many basic forms of art perception similarly.  Despite how we perceive the world in textures, colors, shadow, and highlights, we can still recognize simple line drawings that lack those qualities as quickly and accurately as we can identify photographs of the same scene (Biederman and Ju, 1988).   When someone compares the appeal of an artwork such as a photograph or painting, whatever the viewer considered to be a beautiful paintings created more brain activing in a particular region of the brain than images the individual found ugly (Lengger et al., 2007).  This area of the brain was found to be the left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, or lDLPFC.

Imagine the moments when you’ve had to plan your day’s schedule the night before or when you had to do work out the price of a discounted item in your head.  Both of these tasks activate areas in and around the lDLPFC just like when we judge the beauty of art, places, and even people (Sayim, 2011).

One particular study by Cattaneo et al. hypothesized that how much beauty we see in something or someone is based solely on how much stimulation the lDLPFC receives.  Using twelve participants, these researchers showed them a series of representational or abstract images and asked to rate the images beauty.  Several days later the participants were shown the same set of images but this time underwent either a sham or real transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS.  The tDCS is a stimulator whose electrodes were placed on the skin of the head over the lDLPFC of each participant.  When turned on, the electrodes made the participants’ foreheads tingle and itch for the first 30 seconds before the itching sensation subsided.  The real tDCS stimulation sent electrical pulses to the lDLPFC to cause additional activation in that part of the brain for 20 minutes.  The sham tDCS made the paticipant’s forehead tingle for the first 30 seconds, but it was turned off soon after.  The participants couldn’t tell if they were getting the sham or real tDCS.

The results showed that when stimulated by the real tDCS, the participants rated representational images to be more beautiful than the sham tDCS group.  There was no statistical difference, however, in how the participants rated abstract images compared the sham group.


Stimulation in the lDLPFC caused an increase in the aesthetic mean score value of representational art but not abstract art.

As things turn out, the lDLPFC seems to be related to how much beauty we find in the things we perceive.  Maybe an artist’s or art critic’s constant exposure to artwork caused them to have more stimulation in the lDLPFC and have a greater appreciation for art.   Maybe many people found the Renior’s painting of the girls at the piano too abstract to fully understand.

Works Cited:

Biederman, I., and Kim, J. G. (2008). 17000 years of depicting the junction of two smooth shapes. Perception 37, 161–164.

Sayim B and Cavanagh P, What Line Drawings Reveal About the Visual Brain, Front. Hum. Neurosci. 5 (2011).

Lengger, P., Fischmeister, F., Leder, H., Bauer, H. (2007). Functional neuroanatomy of the perception of modern art: a DC-EEG study on the influence of stylistic information on aesthetic experience. Brain Research, 1158, 93–102.

Cattaneo P, Lega C, Flexas A, Nadal M, Munar E and Cela-Conde C, The world can look better: enhancing beauty experience with brain stimulation, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9 (2013).

Difficulties learning a new language? C’est la vie (That is life)

Dear friends,

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks filled with excitement and anxiety so I’m sorry for not keeping in touch. Not only is it my first time in France, but it is also my first time ever outside of the States! Expecting a huge culture shock upon my arrival, I was surprised when I realized that this would not be the case.

Au contraire, my immersion into the French culture and language has been relatively smooth. While I cannot say that French has become “très bien,” I did pick up some simple greetings. However, it does not help that most of the friends that I’ve made here also speak Dutch, so I probably learned more Dutch than French.

I made a couple Belgian friends who have been kindly teaching me French (actually Dutch).

I made a couple Belgian friends who have been kindly teaching me French Dutch.

Just the other day, we attended the Belgium vs. France soccer game. While it was such a great experience, I had no idea what was going on half of the time because I couldn’t understand the language! Fans screamed “Allez les Bleus!” or “Waar is da feestj?” while I confusedly looked around until joined in on the indistinct chanting.

Dressing up for the festivities!

On our way to the stadium via RER B!

I knew picking up a new language would be difficult, but I thought that it would be a bit easier than it truly is because of the complete immersion factor.

Map of Stade de France

Map of Stade de France

Despite my constant pestering and asking of “what are they saying” or “how do I say this in French, I find it difficult to remember words or even make the correct sounds. For example, “Stade de France,” or the French Stadium,” is pronounced “stad du frans,” but I find myself struggling to make the “du” sound; I have to actively think about the pronunciation of each word and constantly break down each syllable to even hope that I say anything correctly.

Opening ceremony for the friendly game between Belgium and France

Opening ceremony for the friendly game between Belgium and France

Not surprisingly, the scientific literature behind my need to consciously think about what to say and my failure to quickly become proficient in this second language continuously grows. A recent study even found that specific areas of the brain activate in direct correlation to the amount of fluency in a second language (Shimada et al., 2015)! This study comprised of thirty Japanese-speaking adults with varying levels of spoken English proficiency. The researchers evaluated each individual’s proficiency level using the Versant English test, a short examination on language production and comprehension. The test contained simple tasks such as reading a sentence out loud or listening to a short story. During this examination, the participants laid inside an fMRI machine to determine their brain activation through measurements of blood flow.

Shimada et al. discovered that with higher fluency in this second language, activation of the left dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (dIFG) decreased and activation of the left posterior superior temporal gyrus (pSTF) increased. They also concluded that the decreased dIFG activity reflected the decreased need to consciously think about how to create grammatically correct sentences, and the increased pSTF activity reflected the increased ability to quickly process and understand spoken words. (If you got lost reading the extremely long names of those brain structures, I labeled the dIFG red and the pSTF orange!)

Dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (red) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (orange)

Dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (red) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (orange)

With this information, I am now wondering if it might be possible to induce those activation patterns in my brain to quickly become proficient in French! Maybe I should suggest this idea to the researchers for their next experiment! However, I feel as though I might be too scared to be a participant in such a novel study. Therefore, I am content with my traditional, but painstakingly slow, approach to learning French… for now.

Au revoir!

(P.S. I still cannot pronounce “au revoir” correctly…)



Shimada K, Hirotani M, Yokokawa H, Yoshida H, Makita K, Yamazaki-Murase
M, Tanabe HC, Sadato N (2015) Fluency-dependent cortical activation associated with speech production and comprehension in second language learners. Neuroscience.

NBB in Paris!

Welcome to NBB in Paris! The course uses the format of an open-access blog to help the students develop their communication skills via feedback from peers and the public audience. Each student will connect their experiences in Paris with a current neuroscience research finding and convey that information here, as interestingly and as accurately as possible. This is not an easy task but one that I believe is becoming increasingly important in our world of  instantaneous information. In my opinion, the future scientists, health professionals, engineers, or mathematicians have an obligation to be the translators of complex technical information to the non-expert public. Without these communicators, the task of being informed citizens, able to make hard decisions about personal health or public policy, becomes much more difficult.

Be sure to check back to see the latest posts…and comment freely!

Kristen Frenzel, Ph.D.