Beauty and the brain

SEEING BEAUTY Is pretty much a brain thing PHOTO: V. SREENIVASA MURTHYBritish neurobiologist Semir Zeki says human brains work alike and we have a shared inheritance in the way we perceive beauty

Who do you think is beautiful? Apparently all our votes would more or less go to the same person. Wherever we are from in the world, man or woman, Indian or South American, the way we experience beauty is pretty much the same. Because our brains work similarly, and as humans, we have a shared inheritance.

Listening to British neurobiologist Semir Zeki is sure to leave one mesmerised about our understanding of the way our brains work. Zeki, a frontrunner in the fairly nascent field of neuro-aesthetics, was in Bengaluru recently for the British Council’s lecture series “Science and Beyond”.

A professor of neuro-aesthetics at the University College London, Zeki specialises in studying the primate visual brain, neural correlates of the experience of love, desire, beauty, within the field of neuro-aesthetics.

In his award-winning study conducted across people of various races and cultures, the question he addressed was ‘What are the neural mechanisms that are engaged when you experience beauty?’. “I have not asked anything about the concept of beauty, the nature of beauty or anything like that. All I can tell you is that when you experience beauty, regardless of the source – whether it is visual, musical or mathematical, its correlated activity is in the same part of the brain. This opens up a whole set of questions about the uses of beauty. Which are not in the field of neuro-aesthetics, but it is open to everybody to debate.”

He further explains that the way his brain mechanisms experiences beauty is identical to the mechanisms in my brain when I experience beauty. “When you experience biological beauty – beautiful faces, bodies, landscapes, I think we have a shared inheritance. Irrespective of the fact that I’m male, you’re female, we’re from different countries and races,” he says, busting the notion that culture determines perceptions of beauty. A beautiful woman in India is likely to be considered beautiful in England, in Africa or South America too, he argues. Equally, a person who is ugly will not be seen as beautiful in any culture.

“I am extremely annoyed by the persistent attacks on me and on other neurobiologists by saying that perception of beauty depends on ethnic background, culture, and learning. This is not true. It is only part true, and therefore not true.”

Beauty and mathematics

He then takes you into a realm where beauty and numbers meet. “Mathematical beauty — which is the extreme case of beauty based on learning — is nevertheless appreciated by people of different cultures, backgrounds, and ethnic groups as long as they understand the language of mathematics. Which tells you that the logical deductive system we all have is the same.”

Zeki further explains that the Theory of Relativity was accepted initially in 1915 because it was based on a very beautiful mathematical formulation. “Mathematicians will tell you that if you want to determine whether a mathematical formulation is true or not, see if it’s beautiful. If it’s beautiful, it gives you pleasure! So our knowledge of the Universe, of the warping of time and space and the Theory of Relativity, quantum mechanics, of black holes is based really on mathematical formulations worked out by mathematicians. And Other mathematicians say ‘It’s beautiful so it must be true, so let’s just experiment on it’.” Zeki himself is a sculptor and has been into art for the last five years. “I do abstract sculpture. I spend time studying colour vision so I use sculpture to produce various strange colour effects.” Does the scientist and artist in him merge in his works? “When I’m doing my sculptures, the knowledge I have, has been there for years, but I work strictly on the basis of how aesthetically appealing it is to me. That’s the sole basis. If they are good I will exhibit them, otherwise I keep working on them.” He does, however, admit that the more difficult part now is the artist. “Because I know the science behind it. Now I have to concentrate more on the artistic side.” He has exhibited at the Pecci Museum of Contemporary Art in Milan and hopes to have an exhibition in Brussels next year.

Zeki warns that his experiment and its conclusions can’t be seen in isolation. “I would say the experience of beauty is the experience of an aesthetic emotion and it correlates with a part of the emotional brain which is the medial orbitofrontal cortex. But please understand, I’m not saying that if you take that part of the brain out and put it in a dish, that area will be able to experience beauty. It’s just specially important, that’s all.”