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

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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.

BW: In the world literature of love, beauty is linked with desire and love. How does this show up in the brain?

SZ: If you go from Plato’s “Symposium” onwards, the first sight of someone with whom you eventually fall in love is a visual sight; it somehow triggers something. The next point is, “My goodness, this is desirable,” and then, “I love this.” And it’s quite interesting that experiences of desire and beauty both have as correlates activity in the mOFC, so that the linkage you find in the world literature between desire and beauty is also to be found in the brain. Now it’s slightly trickier with love, but I gather, and these are not my experiments, that when people look at the pictures of those they love or the people they find more beautiful, they also get activity in the mOFC. And mothers, when they look at their children, experience beauty, and get activity in the mOFC. So there does seem to be a linkage in the brain which reflects the linkage in the world literature of love.

Now that’s all very well, except that when people are passionately in love you also get deactivation of large parts of the cortex. People tend to be less judgmental about those they love than about people they are indifferent to. A jurist in Italy who read my work suggested that the best way to deal with broken marriages — of which there are significant numbers; percentage-wise it reaches 50 percent in Western Europe — might be to advise people against getting married when they are passionately in love because they are completely unable to judge. The French have a term for that — mariage de raison, as opposed to a marriage of love.

BW: How can the understanding of neurobiology improve our well-being?

SZ: One of the things that neurobiology should do is to make us all understand that there are irreconcilable difficulties between well-being and the demands of society. One of these is the basis for creativity, which is dissatisfaction. Why are we dissatisfied? We’re dissatisfied for two reasons. One is because we are not all able to behave in the same way. A very structured society cannot allow anyone to behave the way he or she wants. Secondly, our concepts change; they differ from person to person, and they change with time.

Let me give you an example. If you want to buy a house, the concept of the kind of house you want to have is based on all the houses you’ve seen and which ones you like and which ones you dislike. But the house that you can afford, or the houses that are available, may not satisfy the concept. That is a spur to say, “Well, I must look for more houses,” or “I must build a house,” each being a creative effort. But in the end not even that satisfies people, because you get adapted to the house that you have purchased, because you found it so close to the concept of the house that you want, and so dissatisfaction sets in again.

One of the lessons that I take from neurobiology, and biology in general, is that there are certain things you cannot fight against with armies or with legislation. So if you want to make everybody happy — the well-being index — you have to start with the assumption that you’re never going to succeed in making people happy in every single domain of life. That goes against biology.

But there are certain areas which you can concentrate on. For example, it is now relatively well established that people with better incomes tend to be more contented than those without. But they’re still not very happy. Adaptation breaks in. When you have a penthouse overlooking Park Avenue, very soon you find your neighbor, Mrs. So-and-So, has a five-bedroom that you would like to have … And so it goes on and on. These things should be factored in when we talk about well-being. We now say we’re going to look at a well-being index with the assumption that if we know how many people are happy or unhappy we’re going to be able to improve their lot. But that’s a hell of an assumption.

Visit Professor Zeki’s blog at profzeki.blogspot.co.uk.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2013 issue.

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