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Semir Zeki

statement on neuroesthetics
What is art, why has it been such a conspicuous feature of all societies, and why do we value it
so much? The subject has been discussed at length without any satisfactory conclusion. This is
not surprising. Such discussions are usually conducted without any reference to the brain,
through which all art is created, executed and appreciated. Art is a human activity and, like all
human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the
brain. We are still far from knowing the neural basis of these laws, but spectacular advances in
our knowledge of the visual brain allows us to make a beginning in studying the neural basis of
visual art.
The first step in this enquiry is to define the function of the brain and that of art . Many functions
can be ascribed to both. One overall function, common to both, makes the function of art an
extension of the function of the brain: the acquisition of knowledge, an activity in which the
brain is ceaselessly engaged. Such a definition naturally steeps us in a deeply philosophical
world, of wanting to learn how we acquire knowledge, what formal contribution the brain makes
to it, what limitations it imposes and what neural rules govern the acquisition of all knowledge.
This catalogue is not much different from that outlined by Immanuel Kant in his monumental
Critique of pure Reason, save that Kant spoke exclusively in terms of the mind. And since the
problem of knowledge is a principal problem of philosophy, it should also not surprise us that the
great philosophers, from Plato onwards, have devoted significant parts of their work to
discussions of art, through which knowledge is gained and imparted.
Because knowledge has to be acquired in the face of constantly changing conditions, mutability
is the cornerstone of the great philosophies of the West and East. But it is also the key problem
for the brain in its quest for knowledge and for art, whose object, Tennessee Williams once said,
was "to make eternal the desperately fleeting moment." Neural studies are increasingly
addressing the question of how the brain achieves this remarkable feat. The characteristic of an
efficient knowledge-acquiring system, faced with permanent change, is its capacity to abstract,
to emphasize the general at the expense of the particular. Abstraction, which arguably is a
characteristic of every one of the many different visual areas of the brain, frees the brain from
enslavement to the particular and from the imperfections of the memory system. This
remarkable capacity is reflected in art, for all art is abstraction. John Constable wrote that "the
whole beauty and grandeur of Art consists... in being able to get above all singular forms,
particularities of every kind [by making out] an abstract idea... more perfect than any one
original." He could have been describing the functions of the brain, for the consequence of the
abstractive process is the creation of concepts and ideals. The translation of these brain-formed
ideals onto canvas constitutes art.
Art of course, belongs in the subjective world. Yet subjective differences in the creation and
appreciation of art must be superimposed on a common neural organization that allows us to
communicate about art and through art without the use of the spoken or written word. In his
great requiem in marble at St. Peter's in Rome, Michelangelo invested the lifeless body of Christ
with infinite feeling - of pathos, tenderness, and resignation. the feelings aroused by his Piet
are no doubt experienced in different ways, and in varying intensity, by different brains. But the
inestimable value of variable subjective experiences should not distract from the fact that, in
executing his work, Michelangelo instinctively understood the common visual and emotional
organization and workings of the brain. That understanding allowed him to exploit our common
visual organization and arouse shared experiences beyond he reach of words.

It is for this reason that the artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and
capacities of the brain, though with different tools. How such creations can arouse aesthetic
experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms. Such an understanding is now well
within our reach. The first step is to understand better the common organization of our visual
and emotional brains, before we can even proceed to enquire into the determinants of neural
variability. But there is little reason to doubt that a study of variability, of how a common visual
activation can arouse disparate emotional states, will constitute the next giant step in
experimental studies of the visual brain.
In such a study neuroscientists would do well to exploit what artists, who have explored the
potentials and capacities of the visual brain with their own methods, have to tell us in their
works. Because all art obeys the laws of the visual brain, it is not uncommon for art to reveal
these laws to us, often surprising us with the visually unexpected. Paul Klee was right when he
said, "Art does not represent the visual world, it makes things visible." We hope that the
enormous international enthusiasm that a study of the neural basis of aesthetic experience has
generated will prove an effective catalyst in encouraging the neural study of other human
activities that may seem remote from the general discipline of neurobiology. It is only by
understanding the neural laws that dictate human activity in all spheres - in law, morality,
religion and even economics and politics, no less than in art - that we can ever hope to achieve a
more proper understanding of the nature of man.

Semir Zeki
http://neuroesthetics.org/statement-on-neuroesthetics.php