The first presentation, entitled "Neuroaesthetics," was by the distinguished neuroscientist Semir Zeki. He announced that that we are at the beginning of a revolution, equal in importance to the Copernican one. It's of being able to find scientific answers to questions about subjective mental states. So striking was this statement, that I thought I had better pass on what Zeki said to readers of OnFiction.
One question, said Zeki, is: What are the neural correlates of beauty and ugliness? Kawabata and Zeki (2004) used 192 paintings categorized as abstract, still life, portraits, and landscapes, and had 10 participants rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, from ugly to beautiful. Some days later in an fMRI machine the participants were shown ugly pictures (that had been rated 1 and 2), neutral pictures (rated 5 and 6) and beautiful pictures (rated 9 and 10). As compared with ugly and neutral paintings, beautiful pictures more strongly activated parts of the visual cortex as well as areas of the orbitofrontal cortex that have previously been found to be associated with reward, and emotional engagement, the more beautiful the picture was rated, the more was the activation. By contrast, ugly paintings (as compared with beautiful ones) more intensely activated parts of the motor cortex.
Zeki went on to say that beauty is not art, but that one of the characteristics of great art is ambiguity. We are familiar with visually ambiguous figures, such as the wife/mother-in-law figure, which can seem like the head of young woman looking away from us over her shoulder, and which alternates with a side-view of the face of an older woman with a prominent chin. Zeki proposed that a characteristic of great art is not visual ambiguity (in the manner of ambiguous figures) but cognitive ambiguity. Modern fMRI studies have shown that ambiguity is a property of the brain, as interpretation shifts so does brain activation.
An example of cognitive ambiguity is Jan Vermeer's painting "The girl with the pearl earring." Zeki (2004) has written about the girl in this picture as follows.
She is at once inviting, yet distant, erotically charged but chaste, resentful and yet pleased. These interpretations must all involve memory and experience, of what a face that is expressing these sentiments would look like. The genius of Vermeer is that he does not provide an answer but, by a brilliant subtlety, manages to convey all the expressions, although the viewer is only conscious of one interpretation at any given moment. Because there is no correct solution, the work of art itself becomes a problem that engages the mind. ‘‘Something, and indeed the ultimate thing, must be left over for the mind to do,’’ wrote Schopenhauer (p. 189).
Kawabata, H., & Zeki, S. (2004). Neural correlates of beauty. Journal of Neurophysiology, 91, 1699-1705.
Zeki, S. (2004). The neurology of ambiguity. Consciousness and Cognition, 13, 173-196.