Friday, July 25, 2008


What is going on in your brain when you behold the Pietà by Michelangelo?

On one level your brain instantly perceives the shapes and contours, and it recognizes that the image on your computer screen is a photograph of a three-dimensional form. Even if you had never seen it before, you would recognize that the sculptural form represents human figures. You might observe that the sculpture is accomplished at the highest level of mastery. The subjects portrayed are not just any humans, but Mary and Jesus, with all the emotional and spiritual associations that go with that story. Perhaps you might recall the mentally disturbed geologist who vandalized the work with a hammer in 1972.

When I saw the Pietà in person, I was overcome by its beauty. I remember the feelings welled up inside me. I choked up, my eyes filled with tears, and I was unable to speak.

All these responses to a work of art can be studied using the new functional MRI (fMRI) mapping techniques. Corresponding with each level of response, there is specific and localized electrical activity going on in different parts of the brain.

Traditionally, the study of how and why we respond to beauty has been addressed by the field of aesthetics, a domain of philosophy. But today, a small group of scientists is working to understand aesthetic response in neurological terms, and this is part of a larger movement called “empirical aesthetics.”

One of the pioneers in this new field of neuroesthetics is Professor Semir Zeki. He coined the term, and he runs the Institute of Neuroesthetics at University College London. In his Statement on Neuroesthetics, he says, “Art is a human activity and, like all human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the brain.”

Professor Zeki graciously responded to a few questions:

JG: Can we tell from brain imaging that the response to art is somehow special or different from the response to utilitarian or nonesthetic objects?

SZ: At present it is difficult to tell the difference between the response to an ordinary object (eg. a chair) and the response to viewing the painting of a chair. The same applies to faces. If, however, one were to focus specifically on the aesthetic value of what is being viewed, one would (I think) be able to differentiate between the two - assuming that the painting has greater aesthetic appeal. This is because, in that case, there would be greater activation of the orbito-frontal cortex.

JG: Tolstoy’s definition of art involves one person consciously infecting another with an emotion. When a subject reports that a work is beautiful or ugly, how is the brain’s emotional center involved?

SZ: Perceiving something as ugly or beautiful involves activation of the medial orbito-frontal cortex. Activity here is much more pronounced when pictures considered to be beautiful are perceived (in other words the activity is proportional to the declared experience of beauty).

JG: Walter Pater said that all of the arts aspire to the condition of music. Can we tell from fMRI studies how the response to visual art actually compares to the response to music or literature?

SZ: This is a question that I cannot answer at present. It is nevertheless an interesting question, worthy of future study.

JG: Does the brain respond differently to abstract versus representational art?

SZ: Yes, it seems to. Portrait paintings activate a specific part of the brain, landscapes another, and still lifes yet another. Abstract art seems to lead to very little activation, presumably because in the contrasts used to elicit the activation, the ubiquity of what is shown in abstract paintings (that is to say the features there that are also common to landscapes and still lifes and portraits) lead to activity being cancelled out in the subtraction process.

JG: How would you respond to critics who say that this line of inquiry is too reductive and diminishes the mystery and grandeur of the aesthetic experience?

SZ: I would say that they are misguided, because knowledge of the mechanisms involved in artistic appreciation and creativity does not in the least diminish the affective value of these works when we view them. I would also say that they are misguided to think that there can ever be a satisfying theory of aesthetics and beauty which does not take into account the neural activity which leads to aesthetic experiences. I would finally say that, whatever their concerns, science has now embarked firmly on a study of neuroesthetics, and there is no turning back.

Professor Semir Zeki's blog and website. and his statement on neuroesthetics.
Wikipedia entry on Neuroesthetics, link
Association of Neuroesthetics website, link.
More about fMRI, link.
Image of brain from:
More about the Pieta and its vandal, Laszlo Toth, link.


Erik Bongers said...

GJ's second year : now even with interviews! (and not exactly the superfluous kind)

Some months ago I had a talk with my sister about the origin of aesthetic appreciation.
We both felt that there was a genetic factor involved.
That is, in addition to the more widely acknowledged cultural influence.

I remember a docu about scientific research on similarities between identical twins that had been raised separately. Quite often when they were to meet each other for the very first time (well, not really of course) they would wear the same or similar clothes!
So what does that tell us about personal or good/bad taste.

Although I love to preach about 'the right to have your own taste and thus the abolition of the concept of good or bad taste', your 'own' taste may not be a matter of choice but much more predefined that we would like to believe.

In any case, if scientific research on aesthetics "diminishes the mystery and grandeur of the aesthetic experience", that may not necessarily be a bad thing as it puts our feet back firmly on the ground.

The development of the sciences of psychology and genetics has learned us to underappreciate our personality, but in a good way.
How often do we say "Oh, I got that [behaviour] from my father!", thereby rejecting responsibilty (in case of a bad quality) but equally so a personal victory.

I can imagine use in the future making statements like "yeah, I love those golden shine kitch artefacts, but I'm afraid it runs in the family".

Erik Bongers said...

P.S.: Pietà = my favorite sculpture

Victor said...

Could someone clarify what Prof. Zeki meant by "the ubiquity of what is shown in abstract paintings (that is to say the features there that are also common to landscapes and still lifes and portraits) lead to activity being cancelled out in the subtraction process"?

Erik Bongers said...

I guess it means that in an abstract painting, since we don't really recognize something very specific (a face, a hill,...) that our brain is not especially triggered in those area's.
But we do involuntarily try to recognize things in an abstract painting, so our brain gets triggered in lots of different places, but only very moderately.

I guess the 'cancellation' implies that if a brain is triggered ( = more active) in one area, that it will be in lower activity in other areas. Makes sense. Otherwise, after a lot of triggering, steam would come out of our ears due to overload.

So if an abstract painting triggers our brain 'all over the place', then it also has reduced activity 'all over the place', so the net result is nadda, and thus not detectable.

Murat Kayi said...

Very interesting interview and really fascinating approach to observing the source of our emotions.

whatsoever the exact reason, I find the statement that...

>Abstract art seems to lead to very
>little activation

sums my experience with many a piece of abstract art up just fine...^^

Unknown said...

Very interesting. The pieta is one of the most powerful works of art.

Unknown said...

Okay, another comment.

I think that the fact that in the studies they've done, the subjects they've studied have not responded that much to abstract art -- this may say more about the subjects than about abstract art.

However, you stick those electrodes on to Jasper Johns and have him look at a deKooning, and I'll bet they're going to see a lot of bells and whistles going off.

Don't get me wrong, I really love realistic painting, but I can appreciate abstract as well. The more I study it, the more I appreciate it. There are some abstract paintings that really move me, especially when I see them in person.

Anyway, just a word or two in defense of the splashers and drippers. I'm not a scientist, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Erik Bongers said...

I think 'activation' is being confused with 'excitement' or 'appreciation' here.
Note that the prof. states that the 'activation' for looking at a chair is very similar to the activation for looking at a painting of a chair.

Also notes that he thinks that when concentrating on aesthetic appeal (of a painting of a chair ?) he would detect different activity.

Note that he uses the word 'thinks', so this hasn't been detected as of yet.

The prof. seems to suggest that what scientific instruments (currently) register in a brain is more 'recognition' than aesthetic appreciation.

Also, as stated by the prof., activation with abstract art is not being detected due to this cancellation, but that doesn't mean there is no activation.