09/29/2015 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beauty and the Brain: An Interview With the Father of Neuroesthetics, Semir Zeki -- Part One


As a renowned neurobiologist who ventured into the realm of aesthetics and how the brain processes art, Semir Zeki has drawn fire from a number of more conventionally oriented art writers and critics. When he speaks at TRAC2015 (a representational art conference that takes place November 1-4 in Ventura, California), he will face an audience more accustomed to the ideas of philosophers Kant and Hegel than assessments of their craft through the lens of cutting edge neuroscience. From his professorial post at University College London, Dr. Zeki was kind enough to answer a few emailed questions, a task he undertook with his usual rigor and careful consideration.

FSH: What would you say are the most exciting discoveries in neuroesthetics since you published your book, Inner Visions, fifteen years ago?

SZ: There have been many exciting discoveries in neuroesthetics over the past few years. Of these, I would say that the most exciting has been the discovery that the experience of mathematical beauty correlates with activity in the same part of the emotional brain, the medial orbito-frontal cortex, as the experience of beauty derived from visual and musical sources, as well as the experience of moral beauty.

Timothy Robert Smith, Sweet Spot, 2014, oil on panel, 48 x 48 inches.

This has raised two important issues, which may be of general interest. The first is that the experience of mathematical beauty, which is derived from a highly cognitive source, correlates with activity in the same part of the brain as the experience of musical and visual beauty, which are derived from more sensory sources. This raises the broader question of what the value of beauty is. Charles Darwin wrote of beauty as being critical in sexual selection, and there is no reason to doubt that. But I believe that its value may be more general than that, in revealing truths - both small and large - about the world we live in. Paul Dirac, the physicist, once wrote (in 1933) that the theory of relativity had imported beauty into mathematics to an unprecedented degree and that henceforth the veracity of a mathematical formulation should rely more on whether it is beautiful than, as in the past, on whether it is simple. Immanuel Kant thought that the pleasure we derive from a mathematical equation (and beauty has always been linked to pleasure) is that it "makes sense". We should now ask, "makes sense to what?". The answer must surely lie, to a significant extent, "that it makes sense to the logical, deductive and inductive system of the brain". And that answer is significant in two respects: first, although mathematical beauty can only be experienced by those versed in mathematics (and hence represents the most extreme form of beauty that is dependent on culture and learning), it nevertheless is also true that mathematical language is universal and dependent upon the culture of mathematics alone - not on other aspects of culture or on ethnic background. The fact that the same mathematical equations - for example Leonhard Euler's identity equation - is found beautiful by mathematicians who otherwise belong to different cultures, implies a similarity in the logical, deductive system of the brain that cuts across ethnic and cultural lines. This also, next, gives some credibility to Plato's view that mathematical beauty is the highest form of beauty, because it tells us something about the structure of the Universe. But the reality of the structure of the Universe, if dependent on mathematical formulations, must surely also depend upon the deductive system of our brains and the way it functions. Hence, you can see, that a simple experimental demonstration has raised larger questions about the uses of

Peter Zokosky, Ape and Model, oil on canvas, 24 x 26 inches.

That the experience of visual and moral beauty correlates with activity in the same part of the emotional brain, also raises questions about the relationship between the two. The Greeks had one word, Kalon, to signify physical and moral beauty, and the relationship between beauty and goodness is a topic that has exercised philosophers, though along slightly different lines. These experimental demonstrations re-open those questions. Another exciting result has been that the experience of the beautiful and the sublime correlate with activity in different parts of the brain, hence given strength to the early speculations of philosophers of aesthetics. And, finally, that aesthetic judgments tend to engage different brain systems than cognitive

FSH: You will be the head-line speaker at TRAC2015. Through all of 'Inner Visions' you were very careful to state that your research did not determine whether the effects that any given art piece had on the brain made that art aesthetically good or bad. But you did make statements that indicated figurative representational and/or narrative art generated more sophisticated activities neurologically, activating all the parts of the lower brain that abstraction did, and then whole other sections of the higher brain. The sense given in your book was that the brain's response to representational art was too complicated to study in 2000. Has this changed, and are there recent discoveries that would be of particular interest to representational artists?

SZ: When I wrote, in Inner Vision, that the effects on the brain do not determine whether what was being viewed is "good" art or "bad" art, what I meant is that, just because a piece of work that is experienced as beautiful by one person correlates with activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex of that person, this does not make that work universally accepted or acceptable as good or bad art. Many might find the work not beautiful; but whenever anyone experiences something as beautiful, the correlate is activity in that part of the brain. In other words, these experiments tell you more about the brain and almost nothing about the quality of the art being viewed.

Christian Ramirez, Night Visitor, 2015, oil on canvas, 50 x 42 inches, & Arpeggio, 2015, oil & collage on panel, 40 x 30 inches.

I think the fact that abstract art resulted in less pronounced activity in the brain than representational art can be largely traced to experimental paradigms. An abstract piece, for example a work by Mondrian, contains lines, which are constituents of many forms. Hence, when one subtracts the brain activity produced by viewing representational art from that produced by abstract art, the effects in the brain are less distinguishable. But I do not think that one should read into this that representational art produces more sophisticated activity than abstract art. I think that there have been developments in neuroesthetics which shed light on some aspects of representational art, but these have not necessarily been derived from novel experiments alone, or from novel experiments within the field of neuroesthetics alone. There has, for example, been a good deal of work on the representation of faces which is of relevance to neuroesthetics but also of interest in considering portrait painting, a subject which I will allude to at the meeting.

Peter Paul Rubens, Allegory of War, 1638, & Frans Francken II, Allegory of War, 1608.

FSH: A work like Rubens' Allegory of War stimulates an embodied response in the viewer that is much more effective and powerful than movement in some other paintings, say ‪Frans Francken II's similar themed Allegory of War‬. If identifiable areas of the brain can be activated more strongly by some art works than others (create a quantifiable response), then is it fair to say that neuroscience reopens the door to the creation of skill-based artworks?

SZ: I find your question about Rubens' work difficult to answer. Neuroscience may open the door to skill-based artworks, but I hope that it does not. I think that a skillful and brilliant artist can produce great art because s/he is a great artist. "Designer art" has been with us for centuries, as when patrons commissioned art works to depict this or that. And the great masters produced brilliant works in response. I myself doubt very much whether Vermeer, Beethoven, Wagner or Cezanne would have improved their work if they had known more about the brain and its response to art works. I am also keenly aware, of course, that aesthetic experiences are dependent - to a great extent but not exclusively (see below and above) - on culture and learning. I daresay that a piece which I like very much - Stravinsky's Rite of Spring - would not have been experienced as beautiful by many on first hearing. Imagine if Stravinsky had been lured into producing art that satisfied many brains; he may not have written that piece at all.

Alla Bartoshchuk, Pозмова (Conversation), oil on canvas, 31 x 51 inches.

Part two of this interview with Semir Zeki will appear in an upcoming blog.