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Beauty and the Brain

Greg Ross

When Semir Zeki looks at a Picasso, he sees more than a fine painting. He sees a window into the workings of the visual brain.

Zeki, a neurobiologist at University College London, believes that great artists may have begun discerning fundamental truths about the visual brain years before neurobiologists came to appreciate them.

For example, in preparing for seminal experiments in the 1970s, Edwin Land needed stimuli that would reflect the barest essentials of color vision, to avoid invoking factors such as memory and learning in his subjects. He settled on overlapping rectangles of simple colors, with no recognizable objects—images, it turns out, that closely echo the canvases of Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter who had been active some 50 years earlier.

Modern artists display...Click to Enlarge Image

Zeki suggests that Land's discovery is not a coincidence. In painting his neoplasticist images, with their bold, straight lines and primary colors, Mondrian had declared that he was searching for "the constant elements of all forms." Thirty years later, physiologists discovered a central role played by cells that respond selectively to straight lines. Using only his intuition, Mondrian had correctly identified the essential building blocks of form perception. "You could say that Mondrian antedated or preceded the physiologists by at least three decades," Zeki says. "He was exploring the same question, but with different techniques."

In his own exploration of color perception, the neurobiologist has found himself following the footprints of past masters. In devising images, such as blue strawberries, to stimulate the brain's response to unnatural colors, he found himself mimicking fauvists such as Matisse, whose "liberation of color" in the early 1900s created a world of green skies and yellow trees. Zeki found that, like Mondrian, the fauvists had discovered an aesthetic principle with neurological underpinnings: "When you take humans and give them objects which are naturally colored and those that are unnaturally colored, you find that different pathways in the brain are active."

The early analytic cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque sought to capture the essence of subjects in "simultaneous vision" by eliminating point of view, distance and lighting. Zeki believes these artists were intuitively exploring the brain's ability "to recognize an object no matter what angle it's viewed from, or what distance or what lighting conditions."

As it happened,  some viewers were unable to recognize the paintings' subjects without a cue. "Here you've got to decide whether the failure was aesthetically satisfying," Zeki says. And while this may be a matter for debate among aficionados, "I think you can say in neurological terms that it failed."

Such statements can raise the ire of art critics, who sometimes accuse Zeki of reductionism. But he insists that, ultimately, any theory of aesthetics must be based in neurobiology. "I've been studying the organization of the primary visual brain for nearly 30 years," he says. "If I can't make a single statement about why it is that people go to art galleries, then I don't feel I'm doing too well."

He points out that knowing how his own brain responds to a work of art doesn't interfere with his appreciation of it. In fact, some researchers have suggested that neurology will eventually uncover "laws" of aesthetic experience—common preferences for symmetry, grouping and proportion that successful artists have been applying intuitively.

More insights will come with time, and Zeki dreams one day of profiling Titian, Michelangelo and Caravaggio from a neurobiologist's perspective. For now, he's busy with a new Institute of Neuroaesthetics, whose annual meeting in January will consider the empathetic response that viewers feel to faces in portraits.—Greg Ross

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