David: Was there some significance to you, beyond what you’ve said, of finding that it’s the same part of the brain that’s linked to the emotional brain that lights up for mathematical beauty and other kinds of beauty? Is that what people expected before? Is it what you expected?
SZ: No, no, no, no, no, no. I had no such expectation. There were any number of possibilities. There was the possibility that this part of the brain did not light up. There was the possibility that the regions of the brain which are critical during the working out of mathematical equations would be lighting up. It could be, perhaps, the audio-visual area is lighting up. So there were no expectations, but it just happened to be same area, which actually mildly surprised me because the experience of mathematical beauty is derived from a highly cognitive source, whereas visual beauty is a very elementary visual source.
And the other thing which had been a critical issue in the philosophy of aesthetics, is can aesthetic judgement ever be quantified? And the answer is yes, in the sense that when you declare something is more beautiful, and these are all declared in writings after the experience, then the activity there is higher than when you find something less beautiful.
So, in a sense, philosophers should be the last people to be upset by these things because they have always spoken about beauty in abstract terms. If you look at John Locke or Hume or any of these people, or Plato or Aristotle, they don’t talk about visual beauty or assimilable beauty, they talk of poetic beauty, beauty in drama, beauty in music, beauty in, in painting and so on.
David: So they’re saying that beauty of itself is a part of the universe. It’s an abstract thing but…
SZ: Well, I wouldn’t put it like that. I would say that activity in a given, specific part of the brain correlates with the experience of beauty. So, if you were to sit down and say to me, you know, ‘Look, I know that you’re only a neurobiologist, and I know I shouldn’t be addressing this question to you, but it’s late in the night. Let me ask you, what is beauty?’
So I would say to you, ‘Look, I can’t tell you what beauty is, but I can tell you a characteristic of beauty which every time you are going to experience it, you’re going to have your medial orbitofrontal cortex increase its activity.’
I’m not even going to say it’s because of something beautiful, but it correlates with it. So I can give you a definition of beauty. I can tell you that when you experience beauty in Hagia Sophia or in the windows of a church, in Mexican sculptures, or the paintings of Cézanne or Poussin, then I can predict for you that you will have activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex while you experience beauty. So that, I think, is progress.
Ard: Yeah, it is progress, but all you’re saying is it correlates. Beauty is infinitely more than the bit of my brain lighting up.
SZ: It is infinitely more. It’s infinitely more than the beauty of your brain lighting up. It’s infinitely more than a particular part of your brain lighting up. But I don’t think you can experience beauty unless you have a brain. At least I am convinced of that. And, given that, I don’t think you can have a complete theory of aesthetics without taking into account the way the brain handles such experiences.
Now, these are shocking words to many people, but it doesn’t matter. I think many people would say it’s got nothing to do with the brain, beauty exists outside. I’m happy with that statement. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I would not care to spend time challenging it.
But what I’m saying to you is if you want to have a complete theory of aesthetics, then you must take into account the organ which is responsible for experiencing something that’s beautiful.
Ard: What you’re saying is not that this is the whole of beauty in the brain, this bit lighting up?
SZ: Now this is an important issue you’re raising. These are the usual criticisms directed at us: ‘You are a reductionist, and you are this and you are that. You’ve discovered the pleasure centre; you’ve discovered love centre’. All of this is not true.
David: Or the God Spot, that’s a favourite one.
SZ: Yes, the God Spot. And all of this – the ‘Moral Molecule’ – is not true. I mean, all you’re saying is there is one area of the brain which is especially active when you experience something. You do not say if you cut that bit out and put it in a Petri dish that you would experience beauty. So you’re not saying that it works on its own. But I think that science cannot proceed without reductionism. It’s out of the question. I mean, you cannot ask, what is the structure of this table? You’ve got to ask about the molecules, the subatomic particles.
David: But it’s not the whole story, is it?
SZ: Of course it’s not the whole story. But in order to proceed, one has to do a bit of reductionism. I mean, I find this a very, very trite and silly sort of stone to throw at you, and in a way, it shows a bankruptcy of ideas. You don’t know what else to throw so you throw that.
Ard: But you can imagine the kind of emotional sense somebody has. They see this and they think Professor Zeki has taken beauty and broken it apart and put it into the brain.
SZ: Yes, well, look, Professor Zeki hasn’t done anything of the sort. What Professor Zeki has done is to say to you, ‘Look, you are experiencing beauty and it’s interesting to me to know what happens in your brain when you experience beauty.’ He’s not trying to explain beauty: he’s just trying to understand the brain, which is a different thing. But people, for reasons I do not understand, are afraid of anything that probes into more complex human characteristics.
I think that there is a fear, which I can’t explain, in any attempt to try and explain things like the experience of beauty, or the experience of desire, or the experience of love. I don’t know why people fear this. They think it is too reductionist. They think you are always trying to explain a very complex phenomenon, and they put words into our mouths which are not there. I mean, nobody, no scientist I know, said that they’ve seen the love centre in the brain, or the beauty centre, or anything like that.