It’s not often you get to sound like Aristotle, but here I am asking Professor Semir Zeki, a compact, animated man, if there is such a thing as universal beauty, and if so where exactly is it located?


"Quite possibly there is such a thing," he says. "And in a year’s time I might be able to tell you it exists for sure and it lies in the activation of these areas," he points to his own forehead, the top of his balding skull, and a place near his temple, "but we are not there yet..."


Zeki is the world’s first professor of neuroaesthetics, a word he coined. In 2007 he was granted over a million pounds by the Wellcome Trust in London to explore the ways in which beauty and art are functions of the physiology of the brain. In some ways, Zeki sees his work as a way of bridging that stubborn interdisciplinary gap between art and science, finally closing the divide between C. P. Snows "two cultures."

Zeki pioneered, as long ago as the ’70s, the understanding of how the brain projects its concepts of color on to the world. He has advanced that knowledge to apparently more subjective areas such as aesthetic taste. "Perceiving something as ugly or beautiful involves activation of the medial orbito-frontal cortex," he explains. "The [electrical] activity measured in these areas through scanning is much more pronounced when pictures considered to be beautiful are perceived." Furthermore, the activity is proportional to the declared sense of that beauty; in other words, Zeki believes that beauty is measurable by degrees.

All great artists, Zeki believes, are instinctive neuroscientists; they have an innate understanding of how the brain "sees" the world, and they are fated by this knowledge to constantly try to find a visual language for those concepts. For Zeki, seeing is not a passive process.

When we look at a painting, as MRI scanning proves, different bits of information are immediately separated and sent to discrete anatomical corners of our brains for processing. Our brains respond to this compartmentalized information at different rates; color is processed before form, for example, and form before motion. Different sites also respond to portraits, or to landscapes,or to still lifes (though abstract paintings tend to blur these distinctions). Having been taken apart, as it were, the painting is never put back together again in our heads; rather it "exists" dynamically in the various responses of different parts of the brain. That combination of responses creates our "emotion" toward the image.

Artists can play with this process. A Monet floods the color centers of the brain, and the areas that process illumination, with all sorts of conflicting stimulation, before form ever gets a look in; Cézanne finds away to make the brain perceive form in unfinished texture rather than in perspective.

If an artist discovers such a language, the receptors in the brains of his or her viewers can’t get enough of it. "The brain demands knowledge," Zeki says. It is constantly on the lookout for organizing concepts. Art directly feeds that demand with new ways of looking that exploit the brain’s established neuro-pathways.

It is either thrilling or reductive, depending on your point of view, to hear Zeki describe some of this. He has a nice offhand way with profundity. "Love and beauty and desire are linked," he will say. "But desire and beauty give you strong activation of the orbito-frontal cortex, and love does not. We need to find out why, but the orbito-frontal cortex is not easy to image, because it is just above the nose."

Some people, Zeki concedes, don’t like to hear their most profound feelings deconstructed in this way. They dislike the implication that fundamental emotions can be plotted on charts and correlated with the particular organization of groups of neurons in the brain. And they aren’t necessarily fond of the idea that beauty exists not in the world but in the excitable processing centers of different cell types. This group of people includes art critics, some of whom have been hostile to Zeki’s work.

He’s not too bothered by his dissenters. "Scientists are very hospitable generally, and artists, too, but art critics might feel threatened by some of this," he says. "They may not like the fact that I could say to you that I know that most people will respond to the beauty of the human figure when it is painted in a particular way because of the way receptors are distributed."

I wonder, in this sense, how effectively the brain can lie to itself about what it finds beautiful and what it does not. Does Zeki have data, for example, on how paintings that an observer professes to love, in fact have little neurological effect on him or her in the areas that respond to aesthetic beauty?

Zeki smiles. "That is certainly the kind of experiment that would make art critics nervous," he concedes. The closest he has come to it is an experiment he is currently preparing that will explore the context in which art is viewed. Is the brain more excited, empirically, by a painting that has a National Gallery label compared with one that is computer generated? Do we really perceive a urinal with any more aesthetic excitement if it is exhibited at the Met?

"I think one can deceive oneself and I think we often do. You only have to look at some of the things people choose to put on their walls," Zeki says, laughing. It is a little like the way that one can deceive oneself when in love. From studies he has done of students who are in the full flush of romantic love he has proved how love deactivates many of the critical sensors in the brain; it lets us believe that the person we love is perfect in every way. "It is possible," he says, "that if I had a painting worth a million pounds, the knowledge of that value, which activates a different part of the brain, might make me think it beautiful when otherwise I would not."

The people who should perhaps feel most threatened by such research, Zeki suggests, are the directors of auction houses. "Imagine if you had a hundred million pounds to spend on a painting and you had a priori knowledge of which paintings were actually objectively liked or disliked by people through scanning their reactions, as we may one day be able to do. Values could well change overnight."

Over the years, Zeki has worked extensively with artists, who have mostly been intrigued by his insights. Back in the 1980s, not long after he had done his pioneering work in defining the areas of the brain that perceive color, Zeki met Balthus at a party. He persuaded the artist to collaborate in some experiments and on a book about the neural basis of art. "He was," Zeki recalls, "extremely hostile to begin with, and extremely converted by the end."

One way of looking at art history, in Zeki’s terms, is as the progression of the human brain’s understanding of its own capacity for visual perception. Most artists may not believe that they are engaged in exactly this project, but they demonstrate it nevertheless, in their work "When an artist says: ‘How can I make a great portrait?’" Zeki observes, "what they really mean is ‘how can I represent this particular face on canvas so that it allows the brain to generalize its concept of faces and therefore becomes a great portrait?’" This desire can be tested experimentally; some cells in the brain will only "fire" with excitement when presented with particular views of the face. The greatest portrait painters have, through experiment, intuition, and skill, discovered the rules of this visual grammar.

Zeki’s latest book, which came out earlier this year, is called The Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness. The title is borrowed from a short story by Balzac in which an artist’s interior vision of the world constantly fails to match up to his representation of this vision. All great art, Zeki contends, exists in that disjunction. Artists are never satisfied, because the interior and the exterior never become united in their work. We respond often more powerfully to unfinished works — Michelangelos Rondanini Pieta is the perfect example — because they both attest to a perfect concept and acknowledge its impossibility.

Another related study — Zeki is nothing if not ambitious — involves an attempt to define connoisseurship. When someone has "an eye" what does it mean in neurological terms? Zeki tells the story of a friend who can tell at a glance whether something is by the artist, by his school, or whether it is a fake. His services are regularly used by museums. "If you talk to him he will say this ‘eye’ comes from a deep knowledge of a whole lot of things working together, color, texture, style, this and that, but it is also what we like to call a gut reaction. He reaches his conclusion almost instantaneously and further study rarely helps. The interesting thing for brain study is this: Is there a particular center in the brain for connoisseurship? Or is it more that when you see a color ascribed to Watteau that is indeed not a Watteau color, your color center immediately reacts abnormally?"

Zeki acknowledges that we are only at the beginning of understanding all these possibilities. Like the cosmologist who will tell you about the material nature of the heavens or the evolutionary biologist who will explain the selfish gene, he argues that the growing field of his discipline does not seek to remove the mystery or wonder of artistic creation. In fact, it deepens it — what a piece of work is man, and in particular his concept-compulsive brain.

A recreational painter himself — "what could be better than to set up an easel and pour yourself a nice glass of wine and see what happens?" — Zeki believes creativity is not just therapeutic. "Art is not a luxury for the brain, it is a necessity." 

"Neuroaesthetics" originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' April 2009 Table of Contents.