Institute of Neuroscience

Staff Profile

Professor Anya Hurlbert

Professor of Visual Neuroscience


Brief biography

My background is in physics, medicine and neuroscience, with my higher education and early career research experience taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. I graduated from Princeton University in 1980 with a BA in Physics, followed in 1981 by a Part III Diploma in Theoretical Physics and in 1982 an MA in Physiology from Cambridge University, where I held a Marshall Scholarship. In 1989, I received a PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT, where I studied with Tomaso Poggio and Peter Schiller, and in 1990, an MD from Harvard Medical School. I then held a Vision Research Fellowship at Oxford University in Andrew Parker’s lab, before joining Physiological Sciences in the Faculty of Medical Sciences at Newcastle University in 1991 as a lecturer.

Having moved from Physiological Sciences to Psychology, I became acting Head of the Division of Psychology, Brain and Behaviour (Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering) in 2003, and interim Head in 2007, helping to create the new School of Psychology in the Faculty of Medical Sciences.   In 2004, I co-founded the Institute of Neuroscience with the late Professor Colin Ingram, and was co-Director of the Institute until 2014. In 2012, we established the Centre for Translational Systems Neuroscience with a Capital Award from the Wellcome Trust.

Roles and responsibilities


Professor of Visual Neuroscience

Director, Centre for Translational Systems Neuroscience


Scientist Trustee, National Gallery, London

Vice-chair, Board of Governors, Royal Grammar School



My research focuses on human visual perception: how and why do we see what we see? The typical human brain relies heavily on vision to make sense of the world, and I believe that understanding how people see will ultimately reveal much about how the brain works. My main interests are in how people perceive colours, how the colours people see interact with other attributes (e.g. shape, texture) in defining objects, how colours evoke emotions and names, and in the underlying neural processes from eye to brain. In my lab, we study these processes using psychophysical, computational and neuroimaging techniques in humans, across the age range, in normal and atypical development. We also apply our findings to real-world problems where colour provides solutions, and  develop and apply calibrated colour imaging techniques. 

Colour perception

Colour vision enables many important behavioural tasks;  people use colour to recognise objects (is that my coffee cup?) and to assess material properties (is this banana ripe? is his skin jaundiced?),  as well as to enhance basic visual processing and visual search.   The neural processes that underlie colour perception begin in the retina and continue through multiple areas of cortex.

Colour constancy is a fundamental phenomenon which ensures that the object colours people see tend to stay the same despite changes in lighting spectra which cause changes in the light reflected from objects. Colour constancy enables people (and other animals who also possess colour constancy) to use colour as a reliable indicator of object identity or material properties. Yet despite being held up as a textbook example of a perceptual constancy, colour constancy is neither perfect nor perfectly understood. Research in my lab addresses several key questions about colour constancy:  How good is colour constancy really?  Has the human visual system optimised colour constancy for natural surfaces and lights? What are the underlying mechanisms in the eye and brain that achieve colour constancy? Does colour constancy in fact improve object recognition?

To measure human colour constancy better,  we have developed a new method for discriminating changes in illumination, using tuneable LED light sources in real-world scenes.  We demonstrated this lighting system and principles of colour perception at the National Gallery’s summer 2014 exhibition Making Colour.

To improve colour constancy in digital images, we also work towards making better colour correction algorithms, by tailoring these to the complexity of real world viewing conditions. For example, in a recent EPSRC-funded project, we analysed colour constancy from the joined perspectives of human and computer vision.

Colour perception in developmental disorders  

Colour elicits strong emotional responses in children, and is often used as a learning tool in early education. There are reports that emotional responses to colour may be exaggerated in developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Williams Syndrome (WS). Although atypicalities in other sensory domains are well studied in both ASD and WS, the integrity of colour perception in these developmental disorders is less well understood.  We are studying how colour perception develops in ASD and WS, and to what extent emotional responses to colour in both atypically and typically developing children are linked to the basic ability to discriminate between colours, and how colour discrimination is in turn linked to the development of colour naming.

The non-visual effects of spectral variations of light on mood and behaviour

Spectral variations in light give rise not only to the perception of colour, but also to non-visual effects, on  human health, mood and general performance. These effects arise through the non-visual pathway originating in the melanopsin-containing retinal ganglion cells. We are using tuneable LED technology, combined with physiological and behavioural measurements, to explore the effects of varying light spectra on both visual perception and cognitive performance. Our aim is to develop a dynamic lighting system that responds to human behavioural needs. This project forms part of the HI-LED research programme (Human-centric Intelligent LED engines for the take up of SSL in Europe) funded by the EU FP7 programme (see 

Other research interests and applications

Colour vision testing

Hyperspectral imaging of foodstuffs, for process control

Hyperspectral imaging of artwork

Development of spectrally tuneable illumination for vision research and museum lighting

The use of colour in contemporary and Old Master paintings



PSC3008: Physiology of the Nervous System (Physiological Sciences)

PSY3008: Art, Mind and Brain (Psychology)

PSY3097: Empirical Project (Psychology)

CMB3000: Research Project (Biomedical Sciences)


MMB8019: Sensory Systems Neuroscience (MRes in Neuroscience)

MMB8099: Project (MRes in Neuroscience)