Beauty and the Brain
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.
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
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