Saturday, January 01, 2000

Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder?

Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain

By: Robert L. Solso Ph.D.


Of all things that captivate the mind’s eye, surely art is among the most enchanting. Beginning with the earliest records of human behavior, we can observe that art has been important in personal attraction, religious worship, sex, leisure, portraying everyday events, rites of passage, and individual expression of inner feelings. These matters have been studied for centuries by specialists from art critics, to psychologists, to anthropologists. Only in our era, however, has brain science begun to make rapid progress in understanding vision. With that progress, arguments for a link between the brain sciences and the analysis of visual art become possible; but few have attempted to find the common ground that art and science share.

In his newest book, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, Semir Zeki seeks to explain the neurological basis of art. A professor of neurobiology at the University of London, Zeki has done pioneering research on the visual cortex and brain areas involved in perceiving color and motion. Alongside his internationally known scientific research, he has long maintained an interest in art. Because few have ventured into the dark cavern of the neurology of art, Zeki is like an explorer who, equipped with the light of modern brain sciences, including data from Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography experiments, sheds light on the many wonders he encounters.


Inner Vision has sections on three topics: the function of the brain and of art; the art of the receptive field; and a neurological examination of art forms including portraits, Fauvism, abstract vs. representational art, and the work of Monet. Each section has chapters principally devoted to its topic, but chapters in all sections are thematically consistent with the book’s thesis. Perhaps as a result, the book does not appear to be well organized in the conventional sense; readers may select a chapter at random and understand its contents. This lack of rigid sequencing is refreshing, but those who look for a beginning, a middle, and an end must turn to a different type of book. Readers may also be frustrated by the minimal documentation and citation; more than once, I found ideas and results of experiments loosely reported, with no attribution to place or author. 

The thesis of Inner Vision is that the function of art and the function of the brain are essentially the same: to search for constancies: “The function of art is thus an extension of the function of the brain—the seeking of knowledge in an ever-changing world.” To support this position, Zeki brings into the picture testaments from philosophy (Plato, Hegel, Russell, Sartre, Schopenhauer), literature (Shakespeare, Elliot), music (Beethoven, Wagner), art (Matisse, Vermeer, Magritte, Picasso, Malevich, Mondrian, Monet), and neurology (Hubel, Wiesel, Ramachandran, Zeki). Moving from one idea to another, one artist to another, one philosopher to another, offers a literary kaleidoscope sure to hold the reader’s interest, although the ever-changing array of conceptual shards along the pathway may also confuse him. The intellectual dilettante will find more than enough to satisfy him. 

It will come as no surprise that Zeki is at his best, both as a scientist and as an art commentator, when he deals with the technical aspects of brain science. Here, this recognized scholar moves comfortably through the research literature on color vision, brain activity associated with various stimuli, and the neuroanatomy of the eye (among other similar topics), citing many experiments in these areas, including his own work. The student of eye/brain science will learn much from this material, even if the treatment is less academic than Zeki’s earlier work, A Vision of the Brain (Blackwell Science Ltd., 1993). 


The idea that understanding the visual brain “allows us to consider art as being an extension of the functions of the visual brain in its search for essentials” will probably offend some—especially art lovers who might argue the other way around (that the brain evolved to see important things, like art). But Zeki  goes beyond empiricism to assume the role of art critic when he writes:

Great art can thus be defined, in neurological terms, as that which comes closest to showing as many facets of the reality, rather than the appearance, as possible and thus satisfying the brain in its search for many essentials. The neurobiological definition of art that I am proposing—that it is a search for constancies, during which the artist discards much and selects the essentials, and that art is therefore an extension of the functions of the visual brain—is meant to have very broad applications. 

Zeki’s thesis raises some unanswered questions. Consider the matter of “great art.” Following the logic in the quotation above, great art is art that comes close to satisfying the brain in its search for essentials. Here, the reader may ask if the logic is circular: Visual stimuli that satisfy the brain in its search for essentials is “great,” and vice versa. Many visually stimulating signals satisfy the brain in this way, however, yet most would agree they are not all “great art.” Zeki’s absolute equivalence between the two creates a tautology. 

In applying his thesis to specific works of art, the author is visited by the fear he wrote about in the Acknowledgments: “For a scientist to write about art...[runs] the risk of attracting ridicule from my scientific colleagues.” Zeki selects Vermeer and Michelangelo as “case studies” to give a neurological opinion as to why their work is so “deeply satisfying to many.” Vermeer’s The Music Lesson strikes Zeki as magnificent art because the technical virtuosity creates ambiguity, by which it is meant that several truths are represented on the canvas at the same time: 

These several truths revolve around the relationship between the man and the woman... [I]s he her husband, or a suitor or a friend? Did he actually enjoy the playing or does he think that she can do better? Is the harpsichord really being used...or is she merely playing a few notes while concentrating on something else, perhaps something he told her, perhaps announcing a separation or a reconciliation, or perhaps something a good deal more banal? All these scenarios have equal validity in this painting, which can thus satisfy several “ideals” simultaneously— through its stored memory of similar past events, the brain can recognize in this painting the ideal representation of many situations. 

According to Zeki, this special type of ambiguity, an ambiguity that is not vague but is certain of more than one reality, is characteristic of all great art. This is, at best, a slippery notion that may mean something to some readers but that, to those of us who deal with scientific concepts and operational definitions is, shall we say, “ambiguous.” It is easy to think of many examples of art that are unambiguous, in the special definition given above, and that are judged to be “great art.” One is further confused by this emphasis on ambiguity because the author also has no difficulty in expressing strong opinions and scientific information explicitly. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the lack of neurological evidence that Zeki offers for his theses. 


As with all works exploring new territory, there are things not addressed. While it is not unreasonable that Zeki may fail to cover a favorite topic, or talk too much about things uninteresting to you, there are some topics so conspicuously absent that the book suffers from a type of cognitive myopia. This is especially incongruous as throughout the book we are taken on a marvelous tour of art, literature, and science, clearly reflecting Zeki’s capacious perspective on the topic. 

In introducing the topic of the visual brain, for example, we are told that its preeminent function is the acquisition of knowledge about the world around us, which is true of all the senses. The bigger question—why we evolved a sensory-memory system that can acquire information about the environment—is almost neglected, yet a comprehensive theory of art/eye/brain should address it. Indeed, the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, briefly mentioned in the book, does focus on this and would have brought an important, perhaps critical, feature to the thesis. 

Yet another area, not only neglected but to some extent repudiated, is the social psychology of art. While the author understandably concentrates on the visual neurology involved in art perception, the sociology of art can help to explain how art can change a culture, reflect a political ideology, define a religion, and win (or lose) the hearts of viewers. It is not necessary for Zeki to have discussed the details of such psycho-social-political aspects of art, but to deny their existence is to fall into the trap that suggests that “my view is the only plausible one.” Even a sympathetic paragraph or two would have cured this concern and quieted the legions of scholars who care little about neurology but write convincingly about art and its effect on the masses. The view we get from Inner Vision, however, is that the ways we humans use art (for example, that art may have a social function or a psychological function) may only be “additional functions,” not essential. 

The author’s technical discussion of inner vision concentrates on the primary visual cortex, although we know that perception and understanding of art engage other brain areas, in which rich associations and connections to a person’s life are made. We would have a very sterile view of art if our cortex were limited to the occipital lobe. Surely a comprehensive theory of art and the brain should recognize all the relevant parts of the brain.

Throughout the book Zeki makes broad generalizations, some bordering on the fractious. For example, in discussing functional specialization of the brain, Zeki introduces the concept of parallel processing—the simultaneous separate processing of different aspects of a visual scene, such as color and size. He tells us that “Computational neurobiologists are currently quite crazy about the idea of parallelism, and they try to make out that they have discovered this phenomenon.” While dozens of neurobiologists and cognitive neuroscientists have enlarged parallel processing concepts into elegant mathematical models, it is unlikely that the majority misrepresent the history of their field. 

Along with some questionable opinions there are errors. For example, Zeki calls the “small tremors” of the eyes “saccades” and goes on to describe eye movements used to scrutinize different parts of a region of interest. The small tremors are physiological nystagmus; the larger jumps in eye movements are saccades. There is an entire scientific literature on eye fixations and art that is largely neglected in this book. 


Thus the book suffers from several problems that, unfortunately, cast a long shadow over its entire contents, including over-generalizations, restricted views, isolated conclusions, omission of important information, unsupported opinions, broad speculation about “great” art, and a few conspicuous errors. These shortcomings are distractions. What one will find in this book is food for thought—sometimes irritating, sometimes poorly explained, sometimes opinionated, but always nourishing to brain and soul. 

I wish to express my thanks to Jennifer Muskat who read an earlier version of this paper.  


From Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain by Semir Zeki. © 1999 by Semir Zeki. Reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press.

The pre-eminent function of the visual brain is the acquisition of knowledge about the world around us. Visual art is largely, though not exclusively, the product of the activity of the visual brain. Can we then define its purpose in general neurobiological terms, or should we consider all art, of which visual art is but one example, as a product of the higher activity of the mind and therefore of the brain, not any more related to the visual cortex—save that it uses the visual brain as a vehicle—than it is to the somatosensory brain or the auditory brain? 

Many might consider aesthetics to be a unified and singular attribute, a higher mental activity, no doubt empowered by the brain but not especially or uniquely related to any specific part of it; the notion of fractionating art and localizing aesthetics neurologically in the way that I shall propose might surprise or even shock them. They might think that art, whatever its nature, is there to make glad the heart of man or to capture a scene for posterity, or to nourish, disturb and arouse. Artists and art critics in particular have entertained many different views about their profession. Some believe that art has a social function, or a psychological function, or that it is a mirror of society or that it should anticipate and lead to changes in society. I would not dispute any of these statements, since all these could be said to be additional functions of art. But I hope that many, especially in the world of art, will also be sympathetic to the neurobiological view that I present here, that art has an overall function that is remarkably similar to that of the visual brain, is indeed an extension of it and that, in undertaking its functions, it obeys forcefully the laws of the visual brain. Moreover, what artists say about their work or its purpose is far less interesting, neurologically, than their actual works and these works use the visual medium. It is therefore what they do to the visual brain that is of principal interest to us.

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Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Robert Malenka, M.D., Ph.D., Stanford University School of Medicine
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

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