Semir Zeki Comes in Peace

Professor Semir Zeki

Why the godfather of neuroaesthetics believes neuroscience has more to learn from the humanities than the humanities do from neuroscience. 


Before I had a sense of Semir Zeki’s reputation as the godfather of the interdisciplinary field known as neuroaesthetics, he had already assumed that role in my own education. I read Inner Vision: an Exploration of Art and the Brain as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in 2007, and it compelled me to continue to study art history and neuroscience in parallel, even as I questioned whether these two subjects were mutually informative or exclusive in nature. But I was nonetheless invigorated by Zeki’s contagious enthusiasm for this sort of consilience, and it was very much his spirit of curiosity that eventually compelled me to start this website in 2009.

Later, out of college and a couple years into running this site, I started to come across direct attacks of Zeki’s foundational work. And the attacks continue today: in skeptical take-downs of neuroaesthetics, Zeki is still held up as the reductionist-in-chief, someone who is hellbent on freezing the mysteries of art in cold, materialist neuroscience. Here’s Alva Noë:

Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist at University College London, likes to say that art is governed by the laws of the brain. It is brains, he says, that see art and it is brains that make art… What is striking about neuroaesthetics is not so much the fact that it has failed to produce interesting or surprising results about art, but rather the fact that no one — not the scientists, and not the artists and art historians — seem to have minded, or even noticed. What stands in the way of success in this new field is, first, the fact that neuroscience has yet to frame anything like an adequate biological or “naturalistic” account of human experience — of thought, perception, or consciousness. [source]

Zeki is aware of this backlash, and he now begins public lectures with a series of disclaimers, acknowledging the critics and yielding back turf that, as far as I’ve been able to discern in his writing and lecturing, he never claimed for neuroaesthetics in the first place.

I spoke with Professor Zeki this week over Skype.

Noah Hutton: I know you like to get the response to the criticisms out of the way first, and I must tell you I’ve encountered them myself in recent years, at various symposia, conferences, and the like: interdisciplinary dialogues that end up devolving into interdisciplinary turf battles. So I have to thank you, and also report to you that it’s still very real– the backlash to approaching art through the lens of neuroscience. How do you respond to it these days?

Semir Zeki: Well, given the opportunity to respond here, I’ll do it again, but I’ll tell you a bit more than I have in the past.  I think most of these criticisms are not worth responding to, because they are not addressing the issues that neurobiology is interested in, or neuroaesthetics is interested in.  And you see, my asking “what are the neuro-mechanisms that are engaged when I see colors?” Nobody would criticize that.  Well, not anymore anyway.  They did years ago; not anymore. 

But when I think what are the neuro-mechanisms that are engaged when I experience the beauty of something, well, a whole host of people come out of the woodwork and start saying that neuroscience can’t address the question of what beauty is, or what art is. They don’t first ask, “just wait a minute.  What is this man asking?”  He’s not asking to explain beauty.  He’s not asking to explain art.  He’s not, in fact, making any philosophical discourse on the subject.  

Now, the fact that I have been saying this for so many years and I still get this– to me, this is indicative of a deep-seated insecurity on the part of these people.  Because if they could think it through, they would say, “Well, look, he’s not saying anything about art.  He’s not saying anything about beauty.” 

That said, I can think of reasons why they feel insecure.  Because first and foremost, there are consequences of the results of neuroaesthetic studies.  I mean, the fact that the experience of mathematical beauty correlates with activity in the same parts of the brain as experiencing visual and musical beauty is not an irrelevant fact for aesthetics.  

Secondly, some of the most vociferous people against neuroaesthetics have written books on beauty and books on art without mentioning the brain once– not once.  Not even to say, “Look, we don’t know what happens.”  Now, if you look at a more rational, reasonable definition of “beauty,” such as the one given by Edmund Burke, half of it is about neurobiology.  You see, he says, “Beauty is for the greater part a property of objects acting mechanically upon the human mind.” So I maintain that I don’t see a framework within which I can ask what beauty is.  But I can ask “what are the neuro-correlates of the experience of beauty?”

Now, look– there is not another issue involved here, and that is that as long as humans are curious, as long as technology is there, and as long as the money is there, we’re going to investigate these problems.  And they can criticize all they want.  And in a broader context, I think they also have a point.  Their point is one I agree with, that there is too much of neuro-this and neuro-that.  And some of it is not very good.  So they ask, “What guarantee do you have that this is better?”  Well, there you’ve got to sit down and say to yourself, “Look, if I’m going to take this seriously and criticize it, I’ve got to learn everything about it.”  That’s my answer.

NH: Yes, there is a certain gravity that is gained by involving neuroscience in these interdisciplinary conversations.  And I think they might be reacting to that as well.  If you put a neuroscientist on a panel, the crowd is waiting to hear what they have to say, because they know it’s going to be something different, you know?

SZ:  Yes.

NH:  But something else I’ve heard you say, which is another angle on the same question, is that you feel you have more to learn from humanists, and less to teach them.

SZ: Oh yes.  I think this is true, and it’s a sort of criticism really of scientists as well.  I mean, how, with all the knowledge that you and I may gain about the auditory brain, how will it improve Beethoven’s performance? Well, not at all. Or Cézanne’s paintings?  Although Cézanne himself was very interested in perceptual processes, as are many painters. 

And this is another interesting difference.  People who are in the field–painters, musicians– are extremely interested.  They don’t criticize.  It’s the others, the art historians. 

May I just say that there’s one other thing, and I’m surprised by this – I’m very surprised by this.  Art historians, as opposed to philosophers of art or aesthetics– art historians tend to concentrate on very specific topics, such as the influence of Venetian painters on Dutch schools, for example.  Well, we don’t do that.  We look at general things.  We’re interested in what is common to all humans in experiencing beauty. And I think they don’t like it a bit.

But let me just remind you of one other things that Kingsley Amis said: “If you write something that doesn’t upset anyone, what’s the point?”  

NH: I recently read your blog entry about the 2015 Venice BiennaleAnd I bring it up now because I think it’s an interesting way to get into discussing some of the more recent work that you’ve been doing.  Ia lot of the new work you present about these days, you’re dealing with the spatial relationship of artistic beauty in the brain– that there’s an overlap of different modalities of beauty.  You have shown that visual beauty and moral beauty are correlated with the very same region, for example. 

And what I was struck by was your very critical take on the centerpiece– the reading, by actors, of the entirety of Marx’s Das Kapital, which I also went to when I visited the Biennale.  You called it “crushingly boring”. I was curious: if someone were to come to you and say, “Well, you know, I enjoyed this performance because I agree with Marx and I think his moral positions have turned out to be somewhat prophetic over the years,  and therefore your own theory about moral beauty, you know, lining up with aesthetic, visual beauty could perhaps be an explanation of why I enjoyed it”–  do you think that’s a valid way of reading that piece?

SZ:  Very – very valid, yes.  If somebody finds beauty in Das Kapital, I think that they probably have activity in this area of the medial frontal cortex that you’re alluding to.  And what you find beautiful and what I find beautiful may be different.  Now, having said that, I have dipped once or twice in Das Kapital, which I find exceedingly boring. I would have done that reading with the powerfully brilliant Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto is 30 pages long, but could be read continuously and repetitively because it is really politically and socially valued today.

Did you find it exciting?

NH:  No, I didn’t find it exciting.  But I will say, the whole show was organized around this political framework.  So it made sense within the context of that curated show, because most all the artists represented there were responding to class conflict, labor conflict.

SZ:  Well, you see, of course this is nothing to do with me as a neuroscientist, but when you start hijacking art in the service of political movements, you compromise the art.  Sometimes by engaging with that the art loses something else. 

NH:  So in talking about the Biennale I also want to go back now two more years when I was at the 2013 Biennale, I went on a panel with the Association of Neuroaesthetics.  And your name very much hung in the room because there was none of you there, let’s say.  They had decided to go in a different direction towards Alva Noë and these skeptics that year.  Meanwhile, Tino Sehgal, the artist whose work we were exploring– a performance artist– was sitting in the audience.  And of course afterwards we heard he was very interested in what the few of us who were talking about neuroaesthetics were saying.  It validates your point about artists often being the ones who come directly to the scientists and say,  “I’m interested in what you’re doing.” Meanwhile, with the philosophers and art historians, it became a wild turf battle for the entirety of the discussion.

SZ: But what was Alva Noë‘s contribution?  Let me just tell you, I have not actually read Alva Noë‘s article. I read the first paragraph.  The first paragraph says that people have brought his attention to neuroaesthetics, which is a field which has not made a ripple, has had no influence for any kind whatsoever.  And you know something?  He writes this in the review section of the New York Times, and does not see the irony of writing in the New York Times review section about something which in his view not only has made no ripple effect, but will never do so.

NH: That’s right.  Well, we’ve already addressed it, so it’s not worth readdressing. But it is true that he’s been one of the most outspoken critics over the years of this enterprise.

SZ:  Yeah.  But, you know, that neuroaesthetics has never made any contributions, that’s fine.  I mean, that’s his point of view, and I would not care to contest it.  But on the other hand, you see, I got a letter from a mathematician when we showed that the expanse of mathematical beauty correlates with activity in the same part of the brain as the experience of visual and musical beauty.  He wrote to me saying, “Isn’t this to be expected?”  No, sir.  It was not to be expected.  Until you do the experiment you do not expect it.  And actually that raises very profound and important issues about the status of mathematics on the one hand, and about the status of the brain’s emotional system on the other.  So, you know, I mean, Alva Noë is not a person on my radar.  I wouldn’t care to read this sort of thing.

NH:  You’ve just now brought up your more recent work on mathematical beauty.  I want to hear more about that.  Can you just briefly tell me when you became interested in this new subject, and where it’s led you?

SZ: You see, the question that is raised in mathematics– this I’ve not addressed before, but I’m addressing it for you– the experience of mathematical beauty is the experience of the most objective beauty there is, because you can have one mathematical formulation which has to be right.  There’s no departure from it.  And it can be experienced as being beautiful by somebody from Japan, or India, as long as they know the mathematical language.  Now, what does mathematical beauty consist of?  I mean, what underpins it?  It’s been said that it just “makes sense”. But it makes sense to what? 

It makes sense to the logical deductive system of the brain.  And therefore if it makes sense to the Indian, and the African, and the American– they all really have the same logical deductive system, and so therefore it becomes a study of logical deductive system as well.  Therefore, mathematical beauty belongs to the category of biological beauty. Now, this is an innovation, I think.  Nobody would have suspected it before.  But I’ve since been listening to many, many programs on mathematics, and they all talk about the logical architecture of the mind and whatnot.  Well, of course this means the brain.  

NH: When you say, as I’ve seen you claim elsewhere, that you’re “departing from Darwin” over this issue, what do you mean by that?

SZ: Yes.  Well,  Darwin made sexual section the cornerstone of his theory of beauty.  It was in the Descent of Man.  I am saying that this is true, but I would like to add to that list by saying that beauty has another function, which is to tell you the truth about things.  And it turns out to be spectacularly good at telling the truth about the structure of the universe.  Because the structure of the universe has been largely derived from the equations that mathematicians have come up with, which they have found beautiful. Now, the idea of warping time and space, and Einstein’s E=MC2, I mean, this goes against all rational thinking, but it’s true.  It has been derived at by a logical deductive system which people praise above all for its beauty. 

NH: But it’s amazing that physicists haven’t been attacked in the same regard that neuroscientists have, even though they’re studying material systems.

SZ:  Absolutely.  No physicist has ever been attacked for wanting to know the limits of the universe. No physicist or mathematician has ever been attacked for an equation like E=MC2.  I mean, I could also tell you that in my view art itself is broadly a reductionist process, as is mathematics.  Mathematics is totally reductionist.  But, I mean, when Piet Mondrian says, “I want to know: what are the essential constituents of all forms?” what is he doing except being reductionist?

NH: Surely the litany of string theory equations may not be considered to be beautiful yet.  Are there areas of physics and mathematics that don’t have that kind of elegance and beauty, but are being furthered as proofs of something?  And is part of what you’re saying– the notion that they lack some sort of elegance and beauty– perhaps part of their intrinsic failure as a theory of everything?  Or is that a more controversial point to make?

SZ:  Well, we did get some angry comments from mathematicians who found, for example, Ramanujan’s equations to be beautiful.  Most of the subjects in our experiments did not find Ramanujan’s infinity equations beautiful.  But it doesn’t matter to us, you see, because at the time that they were looking at these equations they did not find them beautiful, so it did not correlate with activity.  Now, you have to understand these experiments are valid only for the time they’re done. You see, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a piece which when I first heard it– I was very young– I thought it was horrible.  But I now won’t miss a performance.  So I now find it beautiful.  And I think the same thing happens in mathematical formulations.  Now, in case you think there’s a contradiction there, there is not.  The deductive system of the brain has got to have a certain degree of education to understand.  And then if the equation satisfies it, it will be accepted as beautiful, and as truthful.

NH:  So string theory equations might be the Ligeti of contemporary mathematics?

SZ:  Well, string theory equations, I mean, they can’t agree on it.  They’re still out in the wilderness.  But, you see, there is something very interesting about string theory.  I mean, the question has not been asked, would we ever have come up with string theory unless we have the kind of brain structure and logic that we have? I want mathematicians really to realize that they’re nothing more than neurobiologists.  They’re studying the brain’s deductive logical system.

NH: Now, not all people engaged in interdisciplinary work or neuroaesthetics are studying mathematics from this angle.  Most other neuroaestheticians are still focused on painting, music, and other forms.  But I wanted to ask you about what’s been described by Anjan Chatterjee as a new generation of “experimental neuroaesthetics”. Do you feel like the experiments now are better than they were a couple decades ago?  What’s going on right now in the field?

SZ:  I think technically the quality of evidence and the quality of the experiments has improved a great deal.  I think people are now beginning to ask questions which should be asked, and which will probably interest art historians more.  I mean, for example, does the aesthetic value of a piece become greater if you put it in a museum?   I think these are all interesting, important issues.  I mean, I just don’t understand the term “experimental neuroaesthetics” because neuroaesthetics has always been experimental.

NH: I’m wondering if it feels like certain kinds of understanding are receding, the more work you do?  Or do you feel that over the years certain insights that are appearing clearer now than when you began?  In other words, if you can remember back to your early days, how does your own conception of the brain and complexity now differ from then?

SZ: Well, it differs very significantly.  I now know that the brain has got multiple parallel hierarchical systems that undertake their tasks asynchronously.  And in all the questions of neuroaesthetics, the results could have gone any way.  It could have been that if you see something as beautiful in terms of color, there’s only activity in V4.  And that if you see something that’s mathematically beautiful, that’s only acting within the parietal area. That’s not how the results turned out.

But it has raised lots and lots and lots of very, very interesting questions, including questions that almost border on the religious.

NH: How so?

SZ:  Well, with all the truth that we have about the universe today, let’s take one: the Big Bang.  Now the Big Bang is a theory derived by mathematical and physical formulations which seems sound to the brain.  Now, if the brain had a different logical system, would you reach the same truth?  In other words, is there a reality out there which is immutable and you can reach it by any logical deductive route?  Or is it dependent upon the psychological, deductive route of the brain?  This is a very interesting and important question.  And let me tell you: in the Bible, in the Old Testament at any rate, there are references to many people that lived hundreds of years.  And we of course dismiss all of this now, saying, “Well, this is just sort of a metaphor, not to be taken literally.”  But let’s not forget that the physicists tell us that the whole of the universe, including everything in it, including you and me, was constructed from a particle which was a millionth of a millionth of the size of an atom.  Now, if you put that in the Bible everyone would say, “This is a metaphor.” But it is a physical truth, and derived from the logical thinking of the brain.

So, sure, it has brought up a lot of very, very interesting questions.  I can’t remember who said it: “All political careers end in tears.”  I think it’s true to say that all careers, and especially scientific careers, end in tears. But it’s a different kind of tears.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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  • I really found this interesting because the part that hooked me in to this blog was when it started mentioning, and I quote “The deductive system of the brain has got to have a certain degree of education to understand. And then if the equation satisfies it, it will be accepted as beautiful, and as truthful.” This statement I feel truly defines what the core value of the human experience is, and shows the difference between you now, and you in the future, or vice versa. For example when you were a kid, your brain is still developing, and trying to make sense of what life is through the basic fundamentals level of learning. So your interest are going to be more focused with toys, games and TV shows for younger minded audience. But say you constantly watched a show or a movie that was more adult minded, and for a good majority of your childhood, you constantly watched this show or movie to the point were you memorized every word. Ideally you would think by hearing this over and over again, you would understand what is going on. But you cant until you have the comprehension of what is being said in that movie or show. For example, I watched Ed Edd, and Eddy non stop as a child, and have seen every episode multiple times. But in one episode they had made a Beatles reference from the song “For The Benefit of Mr. Kite.” I didn’t start listening to the Beatles whole heartedly until I was a Senior in high school and experienced Sgt. Peppers for the first time. After a while I fell in love with the album and the Beatles themselves. Once I got to College, I wanted to revisit those old Ed Edd and Eddy shows my grandma got me on DVD years ago. When I watched the episode that had the reference to the Bealtes, that part clicked in my head, and I found beauty in that scene. One reason is because I’ve had a love for this show growing up as a child, and two, I later established a love for the Beatles, and any time I hear a reference to their music especially from shows I grew up on, the value of the show means even much more to me now. This can also work in vice versa for some one who hates the Beatles, because if they heard that part referenced, but also liked Ed, Edd, and Eddy, they might have a slight dislike for how they feel about the show, or at least that episode.

  • I really enjoyed this interview! I am an artist and I am very interested in the studies done by neuroaesthetics. I’ve been pouring over medical journals in search of more information. What you do Mr. Hutton & what professor Semir Zeki does is very valuable. Forget the critics. The studies on how our brains are affected by art is amazing. The information you provide helps prove that art is necessary. (Something the art historians seemed to have missed…) I’m waiting for a specific study on the effects of art in the workplace on employee productivity & stress reduction. (Geared at office environs. I read the one on hospital staff.)
    Having a scientific resource to point to helps grow awareness. Something I wish to do to improve the listless work environments & workaholic lives many people live today.
    Thanks again for writing this article.

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