Friday, May 16, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner...

A great event took place in Berlin last week – the launch of the Association of Neuroesthetics (AoN), the brain child of Alexander Abbushi. The meeting brought together neurobiologists and artists, and a packed house that included even lawyers. The speakers seemed able to talk and address each other with ease. Nowhere was there a hint of the much written about “two cultures” of CP Snow. Hence in his presentation Philippe Rahm, an architect, relied on scientific evidence as the basis for his designs, Olafur Eliasson discoursed on his work which has undercurrents of enormous interest to neuroesthetics – time, uncertainty, ambiguity – while Christine Macel, a curator, also emphasized the element of time in the artists she chose to speak about. Ernst Poppel, a psychologist, gave a talk which sits as easily in a scientific auditorium as in an art gallery. To round up the evening, there was a wonderful reception and dinner at a Berlin restaurant with pre-Weimar rooms – very atmospheric and perhaps symbolic of the new vitality of Berlin. In that setting, scientists and artists seemed to be able to converse with each other with even less difficulty.

It may seem strange that the AoN should be based at the Charité Hospital, among the largest in Europe, and that the driving force behind it, Alexander Abbushi, should be a neurosurgeon by trade. Well, it shows something important in science – especially during our times – that the crossing of boundaries is relatively easy when the interest and curiosity are there. In his endeavour, Abbushi has had strong support at the highest levels of the Hospital but above all from the Director of the Department of Neurosurgery, Peter Vajkoczy. In fact, all this is not any more strange than the meeting at the Italian Academy at Columbia, which I reported about in a previous blog. The Italian Institute, more used to dealing with issues relating to Italian art and humanistic traditions, also had a full house when neuroscientists addressed brain issues that are of interest to the study of art and creativity. The establishment of the AoN at the Charité is perhaps even less strange, and in fact very apt, when one considers that among those who worked there in the past was none other than the great German physicist and physician, Hermann von Helmholtz, the founder of the discipline of psychophysics and an expert on colour vision (Young-Helmholtz theory of colour vision). But Helmholtz was a polyhistor, also interested in the arts and aesthetics, and wrote about music and painting.

So perhaps what Abbushi and his colleagues have done is not to bring in a new culture that would bridge the gap between CP Snow’s “two cultures”. Rather, they have resurrected an approach that goes back to Helmholtz, and before him to Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and even Plato and which has been merely dormant for well over a century.

Well done Alexander, well done Charité Hospital, well done Berlin…and well done neuroesthetics.


Paul said...

Very much enjoying your blog Prof Zeki!

Best wishes

Spring said...


David Colquhoun writes that our time is "an age of endarkenment". But you say about our times such a way that they look like the Renaissance! Dialogue of Science and Art... Scientific investigations of Beauty...

Who is right of both you? What is our age - the Renaissance or Endarkenment? What do you think about it?