Sunday, November 15, 2009

Beauty without the brain?

This week-end, I watched a very interesting programme on BBC2 TV, entitled “What is Beauty”.

The question is naturally interesting, and it is a subject that I am very interested in. And I learned a great deal from watching this programme, which covered a vast expanse, from cave art, through Michelangelo, to Matisse and Gaugin, and contemporary art, to give just a few examples. Its presenter derived some 10 principles which define, according to him, the characteristics of what constitutes beauty – among them selection, surprise, spontaneity, animation, simplicity, surroundings, etc.

I am not in a position to comment on whether these are the characteristics of beauty or of the beautiful, though I strongly agree with him when he says that all art is abstraction. The presenter, beginning the programme by asking “what is beauty?”, ended it by saying that art is beautiful because of what it is and because of how it is done. But, in a programme addressing the question of what is beauty through the visual medium alone, there was not a word about the perceiving organ, the brain. Indeed, the word brain occurred only once throughout the programme, in a somewhat indifferent reference, when the presenter spoke about the idealization “simmering in Michelangelo’s brain”.

The flaw in the programme, for me, was the title: “What is Beauty?” I wonder: can one really answer or even approach such a question today without even the vaguest of references to the brain? I personally do not think so. When we speak of surprise, or pleasure, or surroundings, or unity, or abstraction, we can actually say quite a lot – even in our present state of imperfect knowledge – about brain activity in relation to these experiences. The programme would have been excellent had it not been for the title. Just as any discussion about what is beauty would be sterile without copious reference to the debates about this question in the humanities, so any discussion about what beauty is is very incomplete without at least a lip service to the brain. In that sense, what promised to be a powerful programme ended up being somewhat disappointing.


Sam said...

Although I agree with you Professor, I fear that as seems to be typical with mainstream science journalism, we'd get something of a one sentence explanation. One which people can trot out at a dinner party as a one word answer to a great mystery, (much like chocolate = serotonin ↑ = happiness) rather than a mention which encourages thought and debate.

Our perceptions like most aspects of mental function, I'd imagine, are a delicate interplay of so many factors relating to the brain (emotional state, past experience, genetic pre-disposition etc). I did not see the show but if they want to discuss why our perception of beauty is so abstract then surely the brain is the best place to start?

Cervantes said...

To study, or even think of beauty without considering the observer or, to be precise, the brain of the observer is like studying nothing. What is beauty for a dog? Even for a chimp! Only the human brain labels objects as beautiful or not, and what is beautiful for a brain might not be such for other brain. Thus, the brain constrains what is beautiful or not, it is the manner in which the brain is made and it works what determines beauty. Hence, to answer the question of what beauty is one has to look at the brain, the place where beauty is.
Unfortunately, the knowledge about the brain by the general public is still very scarce. As an outcome, the brain still appears as a mysterious machine barely or by no means related to most of our deepest products and feelings, such as passion, joy …or beauty. This is probably a consequence of the fact that much of the information about the brain has been achieved by science in the last decades. As scientists, it is one of our enterprises to change this state of affairs in the next future.

cogitoergosum said...

The explanans: What is Beauty? and the explanandum: Beauty is beauty for what it is and how it is done.

Well, obviously that is the kind of explanandum that only in the humanities can be acceptable.

Who would accept that when a chemist is asked, What the water is, or the biologist, What a protein is, their answers were, the water is what water is in itself and a protein is how it is digested!

But in the humanities this is permitted, accepted and even applauded.
What is A? A is what A does.

Said this, I find two problems in the search of an explanation to What is Beauty?

First: there is not unique and definitive explanation, because it depends on which level of description we are placed.
The neural system level, seems to me an inexorable level to be explored if, in bona fede, we really want to understand what beauty is.

Second: Beauty is still a normative concept.
But, the time is ripe for the naturalisation of beauty which undeniably requires to study the neural basis and not just historical narratives which are excellent to give context but do not do what explanations should do, subsume, generalise and apprehend. the facts.
Cogitans tutto!

Sohail S. said...

Professor Zeki, is it true that a beautiful flower is also beautiful in eyes of an insect?

Professor Zeki said...

Sorry to have taken so long to reply.

The question you ask is very interesting but impossible to answer, for me at least. I would think that a flower can be rewarding for a bee - because it ultimately provides it with some rewarding nourishment, and that these rewarding qualities constitute its beauty - at least in the world of bee ideas. The reward part of the brain is after all strongly activated in humans by the view of what they consider to be beautiful. It is very plausible that it works in a similar, though much simpler, way in bees.

Sohail S. said...

Thank you for your answer. When we look at animals we can say which ones are more healthy or more beautiful. This makes me think some apects of beauty are more about geometrical structures (which are universal, determined by statistics of the image space) rather than utility or past experience.
Why some insects are more beautiful for humans? (probably healthier ones). It makes me think maybe some aspects of beauty are universal in a mathematical sense. If symmetrical shapes are more beautiful for us, they could be more beautiful in a more universal sense. (symmetry = a special case of simplicity in terms of Kolmogorov complexity). If insect's visual system could have an aesthetic judgement as a function, maybe the same shapes could be more beautiful for them as well. My argument is regarding the objectivity of the shapes (and the statisics of image space) rather than specific neurophysiological mechanisms (implementations) for detection and perception of aestetical value.
An example of universal/geometrical beauty is this hypothetical situation in which flowers are evolved into colourful symmetrical shapes so that they are more appealing for insects and animals. So bees or butterflies which have more complex visual systems can be attracted to the more evolved flowers, etc. Have people studied such interpretations?

Professor Zeki said...

You raise a very interesting point, which has been debated for centuries but without a satisfactory outcome. What are the attributes of beauty? Symmetry? Harmony? Proportion? I am not sure that any of these really qualify, except to the extent that too great a departure from, say, symmetry would probably lead one to classify something as not beautiful. There are many paintings which lack symmetry and yet are beautiful, which is not to say that symmetrical things are not beautiful. But it is useful to consider that our brains have evolved within our environments and hence reflect that environment. It would not be at all surprising if some aspect of symmetry found in nature is not also qualified as beautiful by animals and humans. There have been some papers published on the representation of symmetry in the brain. I cannot remember the details but will look them for a future post. Thanks, SZ

Sohail S. said...

Thank you very much. I have seem this modelling work by Paul Bressloff:

Bressloff et al, Geometric visual hallucinations, Euclidean symmetry and the functional architecture of striate cortex Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B 40 :299-330 (2001)

I would be happy if I read any posts by you about the topic.

Professor Zeki said...

Thanks, Sohail. I have not yet read the article but may do so. If I find anything that I can comment on, it will be posted here. SZ