neuroesthetics: art and the brain

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Sat Jul 07 2001 - 09:54:06 MDT

It's all about brain wiring: Painters, composers, poets find new neural
pathways to beauty

The V5 Complex

In an article in the latest issue of the journal Science, Semir Zeki proposed
a new field of science -- neuroesthetics -- which would study the relationship
between art and the brain.

Study of Art Gives Insight Into Brain's Structure
``Visual art obeys the laws of the visual brain, and thus reveals these laws
to us,'' he wrote.

Artists have a way of tapping into the parts of the brain that are stimulated
by art, said Zeki, a professor of neurobiology at University College London.

``In a sense they're also studying the brain, but with a different technique,
the technique of painting,'' he said in a telephone interview.

Scientists are just beginning to use art to uncover how the brain pieces
together images into a coherent picture.

The work of processing of images occurs in the visual cortex, which makes up
one-quarter of the brain.

To examine the cortex, Zeki used functional magnetic resonance imaging and
*transcranial electronic stimulation*, which temporarily shuts down portions
of the brain so that other portions may be studied.

By monitoring individual cells in the brain while showing patients samples of
art, scientists have pinpointed regions that respond to motion, color and

But artists discovered these areas unknowingly many years earlier, Zeki said.

He gave the example of kinetic artists, like Alexander Calder, whose works of
the mid-1900s focused on motion while minimizing the use of color and shapes.

``Their work should have predicted that there was an area of the brain that
does that, only scientists found it many years later,'' he said. This area
became known as the V5 complex.

Zeki's research now concentrates on how and when the various regions of the
visual brain are triggered.

Scientists once thought that parts of the visual brain react simultaneously,
but Zeki's current research is showing that some areas respond faster to
stimuli than others. V4, which responds to color, reacts faster than V5, the
motion center, Zeki said.

Someday scientists will be able to see whether artists' brains are different
than everybody else's, Zeki said. And further study might be able to predict
children with the talent to be the next Picasso or Michelangelo.

``A lot of it depends on level of technology and level of resolution. I think
if we're able to get to a high enough level of spatial and temporal
resolution, we'll be able to detect differences, and no doubt there are,'' he

Zeki lectures regularly at the Slade School of Art in London and said artists
are curious about the correlation between art and the brain.

``I think they're interested in the apparatus that produces their work, which
is the brain,'' he said. ``I'm not sure they change their style, they
certainly change their views.''

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--J. R.

Useless hypotheses, etc.:
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