“Beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities….” — Plato (The Symposium)
In the true reality of his world of Forms, Plato claimed there exists a perfect Form of Beauty, imperfectly manifested in what we call “beautiful.” Despite the appeal of Plato’s metaphor, students of aesthetics have struggled to substantiate it. With one third of the brain devoted to vision, it’s not surprising that a field called neuroaesthetics has arisen to establish the biological and neurobiological foundations of aesthetic experience. Neuroaesthetic research shows that the brain looks for necessary features and then distills and abstracts a limited version of what it sees because of its limited memory system.
Semir Zeki, professor of neurobiology at University College London (UCL), is a pioneer in the field of neuroaesthetics. He is also founder of the Institute of Neuroaesthetics, co-located at UCL and in Berkeley, California. Professor Zeki’s research into the brain’s visual system shows that great artists unwittingly expose and express the physiology of the brain in their work, using the same visual building blocks the brain uses to put together a mental picture. However, Zeki says we are not equipped to remember every detail of what we see. With a recently announced £1 million grant from the Wellcome Trust in the UK (in conjunction with the UCL Laboratory of Neurobiology) Professor Zeki’s Institute is forging ahead with a research program that is trying to establish the neurobiology of the visual brain and its organization and functioning in health and in disease.
The UCL Laboratory of Neurobiology has used a variety of techniques over the past forty years to study the relationship of visual art to the functioning of the visual brain. This includes the anatomical structure and connections of the visual brain, plus electro-physiological and electro-encephalographic studies to determine which cells respond to visual stimuli, and psychophysical studies to determine perceptual capacities and limitations. Imaging is used to determine the location and functioning of the many parallel and specialized sub-systems, and inactivation techniques show what happens when a given area of the visual brain is temporarily inactivated. The UCL lab also studies patients with visual brain damage in order to characterize better how the visual brain functions.
Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics includes a neuroimaging study designed to investigate the neural correlates of beauty.
Are there quantifiable, describable, universal aspects to beauty? The world’s oldest known example of abstract art, dating back more than 70,000 years, was found in a cave in South Africa. It has complex geometric patterns including a double-wave pattern. Such patterns are iconic — having a distinctive style — and entoptic. Entoptics
are geometric patterns with origins in the nervous system itself, whereas hallucinations are iconic and culturally determined and may be experienced in senses other than the visual: aural, visual, tactile, olfactory and synesthetic.
Little-known German psychologist Heinrich Klüver was intrigued with the possibility of universal entoptic and iconic images. He began his scientific career at the beginning of the 20th century studying the nature of visual perception in children. He continued this psychological research as a graduate student at Stanford University studying eideteker — photographic memory — in young children with unusually strong visual imagery.
In 1926 Klüver became interested in mescal “buttons” (peyote, the dried tops of the cactus Lophophorus Williamsii) because of the connection to eidetic visual phenomena: mescal visions were thought to resemble visual eidetic imagery. He noticed that the hallucinations seemed to occur in two stages, the first being related to four geometric types: the grid (described variously as lattice, filigree, honeycomb, grating, fretwork or chessboard), cobwebs, tunnel (also associated with cone, vessel, funnel, alley), and spirals. The second stage was that of iconic images which Klüver interpreted as being drawn from memory. There seemed to be thematic constants in the more elaborate iconic images, the most common were religious symbols and images, followed by images of small animals and human beings.
Based on the similarity of the mescal-induced geometric shapes to the hallucinations experienced under various conditions such as migraine, sensory deprivation, and the hypnagogic state that occurs in the transition from wakefulness to sleep, Klüver named the shapes “form constants.” Entoptic phenomena involve phosphenes (or entoptics) generated in the neural system and anyone can see them under the right conditions. (Just close your eyes and gently press on them for a few moments.) These visions can be enhanced by hallucinogenic drugs, and such drugs may have been used in early shamanistic rituals, with the images then drawn by the visionary.
While psychoactive drugs and shamanistic ritual may well have played a part in the early creation of art — as they have did for the Romantic poets and the Beat poets of the ’50s and ’60s — the origin and persistence of art and its relationship to beauty go well beyond the use of such drugs. Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics includes a neuroimaging study designed to investigate the neural correlates of beauty. Ten participants were shown 300 paintings and asked to classify each of them as beautiful, ugly, or neutral. Not all agreed that a particular painting was either ugly or beautiful. The participants were then shown the paintings again using fMRI. “Beautiful” paintings elicited increased activity in the orbito-frontal cortex — involved in emotion and reward — while “ugly” paintings stimulated increased motor cortex activity, as if the brain was preparing to escape.
Ultimately, the ancient question “what is beauty,” so eloquently argued in Plato’s dialogues, may elude neuroaesthetics and remain at least partially within the realm of metaphor — and perhaps rightly so. Author, philosopher, and modern psychedelic shaman Terence McKenna held a lifelong fascination with entoptics, psychedelics, and art history. He captures the mystery of art and the artist in this short video clip:
“Art’s task is to save the soul of mankind,” says McKenna. “If the artist cannot find the way [into the human soul], then the way cannot be found.”