Beauty & the Brain


The new issue of Seed contains a short piece by me called Beauty and the Brain, about the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which seeks to investigate the neural correlates of the appreciation of beauty in art.

Neuroaesthetics was pioneered by Semir Zeki, who has been criticized as making extravagant claims about what can be achieved by the scientific study of such subjective phenomena. The work may seem fanciful, but it could eventually have direct clinical applications: we know, for example, that depressed patients have a diminished appreciation of beauty, and a new study shows that viewing beautiful paintings can reduce the perception of pain. 

I discuss some of Zeki's work in my article, and then go on to look at how architectural design might influence the activity of hippocampal place cells, which are known to be involved in encoding representations of space. The photograph above, by Noah Kalina, appeared on the cover on the previous issue of Seed and was one of 15 in a photo essay called Labs at Night. It illustrates another interesting aspect of neuroaesthetics that had to be excluded from the piece due to space constraints.

The photo shows the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in California, which was designed by the great architect Louis Kahn. Jonas Salk himself collaborated with Kahn in the design, in the hope that the buildings would enhance the creativity of those working within it. In his book American Architecture: Ideas and Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century, Paul Heyer describes it thus:

[It] aspires within its own spirit to an order achieved through clarity, definition, and consistency of application. It stands as a testament to Kahn's word, 'Order is. ' Two parallel laboratories, each an uninterrupted 65- foot wide and 245-feet long and encircled by a perimeter corridor, flank a central court. The support elements to these totally flexible spaces are placed in a peripheral relationship to this corridor. They are the studies and offices for scientists, fractured in profile and vertical in rhythm, which line this central court, connected by bridges to the perimeter corridor and receiving views of the ocean by virtue of exterior walls angles toward it. The idea of simple and strong; the served space of laboratories where research is performed, the serving space of offices where thought initiates...The institute manifests beauty of mind and act; of the resolution and articulation of the major elements of the building...Even the component of structure derives from the need to enclose specific spaces, specifically and pertinently, rather than offer a general envelope within which specific space might then be designated. The central court, as a typical Kahn-like space of shimmering blue water, a band pointing toward the ocean epitomizing what human endeavor can accomplish at one scale with geometric clarity and authoritative but modest deliberation, to give to the scaleless sweep of the ocean, here the Pacific, a poignant gesture.

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I think it is very valuable to pursue and answer, now that we already have the technology and the theory, the great questions of humanity: what is art for, and how our brains fabricate beauty.

Since F. Crick opened the doors to the scientific study of consciousness, now there is no topic to be called despectively "subjective".

A particular branch of Semir Zeki�s foundational field of neuroaesthetics is neuroarchitecture, and it is even more feasible to be manage and treat theoretically and empirically, and therefore to make advances.

In John Zeisel�s book "Inquiry by Design" this is stated clearly.

We can design better space layouts for working, for leisure, for living and for the disabled.

The discoveries made by people like J. O'Keefe on hippocampal place cells, Fred H. Gage on neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the discovery by J.S. Taube of head direction cells etc., are the fundamentals of neuroarchitecture.

First, it an awe inspiring picture. I can hardly believe it's real.
The efforts to study "subjective" experience relating to art and beauty is fascinating, and ultimately could be of therapeutic use. The study on the affects of art on pain are exciting and may provide us with further insights into art and possibly music therapy.

great post

By andrew burkhart (not verified) on 20 Sep 2008 #permalink

' But beauty was not everything. Beauty had this penalty - it came too readily, came too completely. It stilled life - froze it. One forgot the little agitations; the flush, the pallor, some queer distortion, some light or shadow, which made the face unrecognisable for a moment and yet added a quality one saw for ever after.' (To the Lighthouse)

Jonah L. can't have Virginia Woolf all to himself, despite the perceptive chapter in his first book. She fits well in this place in space called Neurophilosophy.
How can there be a doubt about the intertwining of aesthetics and neural correlates? Beauty, horror, harmony, squalor - how can our brain generated emotions and senses of balance, space and surrounding be separated from the input of our living and working environments? A single architecturally structured place can generate a wide variety of human reactions whether construction was finished last week or several millenia ago.
How does an individual's sense of scale translate neuronally into a space feeling free and open or empty and terrifying? How do designers and employers come to agreement in creating flexible spaces that can inspire and nurture all workers, including those who don't work well when surrounded by perfect order.

neuroarchitecture doesn�t deny the individual variability in response to aesthetic feautures of the surronding enviroment from the past or present. Instead, it can tell us from the basic "bauplan" all of us share it, how we end up following distinct aesthetic trayectories in our life span according to experience and other factors. Look at the analogy with "personal medicine".

Neuroaesthetics, and of course neuroarchitecture, is still in an embryonic stage and all the questions you pose (all interesting and very relevant) only research would answer.