Where Beauty Lights Up the Brain: An Interview with Neuroscientist Semir Zeki

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


The French have an expression, chacun à son goût, which means “to each his own taste.” This can apply to most anything from clothes and cars to choice of intimates and serves as a viable way to shrug off a difference of opinion. Can the subjective experience of beauty which leads to desire be traced to a particular area of the brain?

Semir Zeki is a professor of neuroesthetics at University College London. His main interest, the organization of the primate visual brain, has led to the study of the neural basis of aesthetic appreciation of art. In 2011, he co-authored a paper which appeared in the online journal PLOS ONE suggesting that you can determine what a person finds beautiful by examining a specific area of the brain, namely the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). In Zeki’s 2012 TED Talk, “The Neurobiology of Beauty,” he discussed findings derived from experiments employing various visual stimuli, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s “Grande Odalisque” and Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” in his quest to find a single fundamental characteristic of the experience of beauty, one which is independent of culture, education, and ethnic background.

Zeki has written over 200 papers and five books: “Splendours and Miseries of the Brain”
(2008); “A Vision of the Brain” (1993); “Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain” (1999); “La Quête de l’essentiel” (co-authored with the late French painter Balthus); and “La bella e la bestia” (co-authored with Ludovica Lumer). In 2001, Zeki founded the Institute of Neuroesthetics, based mainly in Berkeley, California.

Professor Zeki has exhibited his own art in Milan, is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a 2011 recipient of the Aristotle Medal. We were extremely honored to enjoy a conversation with him recently via Skype.

Brain World: Is an aesthetic experience just a neural event like any other, or are there substantive differences?

Semir Zeki: There is a principle, which I like to call “Zeki’s Principle” even though I’m sure a lot of people have thought of it before me, that says if you can tell the difference, it’s because different parts of the brain — different groups of cells — are reacting. If you look at a visual stimulus, for example a straight line or a moving dot, it doesn’t light up the mOFC. It lights up the relevant visual area that allows you to perceive these things.

The mOFC is part of the reward and pleasure centers of the emotional brain, and it seems to light up when you’re experiencing something beautiful. But it also lights up under other conditions, such as when you’re having a reward. So the question, from a neurobiological point of view, is whether there is a difference in the cells within that area which light up when you’re experiencing something beautiful and the ones which light up when you’re having a reward. Now I go back to my principle, that if there is a difference in what you experience or perceive then different groups of cells must be reacting or active. But we’re not advanced enough to be able to dissect out the various groups of cells involved within the reward and pleasure centers, at least not yet.

There’s more. Experiencing something as beautiful implies that you’ve made a judgment about it. Now, when you ask people, for example, to judge not whether a painting is beautiful or not but to judge which of two simultaneously presented paintings is the more beautiful, you find that you get also activity in the mOFC, and one begins to wonder which comes first — whether judgment comes first and experience later, and whether the same identical groups of cells respond in both cases, or indeed whether judgment and experience are the same thing.

BW: You write, “Abstraction is the characteristic of every one of the many different visual areas of the brain.” What is beauty in the abstract, and what is its impact on brain activity?

SZ: If you were to ask people about the Ingres painting and the Lucian Freud painting, they’d say one of them is beautiful and the other ugly. But if you were to ask an art expert, or an artist, they’d say they both have masterly painterly qualities. But the question we’re asking is not about art. It’s about the experience of beauty.

Regarding “abstraction”: let’s look at an area of the brain which is specialized for the processing of colors. There are cells that respond to green. These cells will respond to green whether you put it on a square, a green leaf, green necktie, tree, or grass. They are indifferent to what surface the color invests. Now let us take, for example, a cell that responds to the vertical orientation, not horizontal. Such a cell will respond to my finger, to a line, ruler, pen, as long as they have the property of verticality. I think I’m right in saying if one looks carefully at the responses of cells in the brain, one could make a reasonable case that each area of the brain and indeed every cell in these areas, abstracts. So specialization goes with abstraction. A cell that is responsive to green is very specialized. It abstracts the property of greenness regardless of what object that property invests.

In the philosophical literature of aesthetics, people always speak of beauty in the abstract. They talk about beauty derived from music, poetry, painting. I talk about beauty derived from portrait or landscape painting, or, in terms of music, derived from jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, or Beethoven. In our studies, we found that whenever subjects experienced beauty, regardless of whether it was from a musical or visual source, the experience always correlated with activity in the mOFC. In that sense, there is an abstract quality to beauty in that it doesn’t have to be tied to any particular medium. If you experience a face or a vase as beautiful, you will get activity in the mOFC.

BW: What is the value of being able to “localize and quantify” subjective mental states like the experience of beauty?

SZ: I think scientific questions are often asked irrespective of their possible value. Its value is in increasing natural knowledge. But there’s more to it than that. Up until 20 to 30 years ago, science did not deal with subjective mental states, because if you told me something was beautiful I had no way of verifying that. I’d just take your word for it. But things have changed. Science can now address the area of subjective mental states in one of two ways. By asking which are the areas that are especially active in the brain when you have a certain subjective experience such as falling in love or desiring something or finding something beautiful. Secondly, is the activity in those areas, assuming that you found them, measurable? Does it have any relationship to the declared intensity of the experience?

In other words, if I perceive something as very beautiful and rate it 10 out of 10, will the activity in the relevant area of my brain be more than when I perceive something that’s ugly and rate it 2 out of 10? The answer is yes, and this answers a question in the philosophy of aesthetics which had been left unresolved. Which is, can pleasure — as in the experience of beauty — ever be quantified? We know now the answer is yes. Proof for scientific purpose is one thing.

But I can see the day when an auction house, for example, will want to auction only things people find beautiful because they’ll spend more money, and will want to make use of this new knowledge. You show things to people and ask them to rate them in terms of what’s beautiful or ugly. It’s a pointless exercise, in a way, because when you enter an auction house you make up your mind what you want to buy, and it’s already done. And the decision does not depend upon beauty alone — it includes other factors such as how much of a status it confers on the buyer and how much it will appreciate financially. I do not see this approach — if ever there is one — as being very useful.


Secondly, and unfortunately, once this kind of information is available, all sorts of people will want to get their hands on it. And when that particular technology becomes available, it will not be restricted only to beauty. There are many subjective mental states, and no doubt lots of people will want to get their hands on that technology and on the information it would provide, and we’ve got to guard against that.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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