Inner Vision: an Exploration of Art and the Brain

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Biology 202
2003 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Inner Vision: an Exploration of Art and the Brain, by Semir Zeki, Oxford University Press, 1999 (A Book Review)

Alanna Albano

Is artistic expression intertwined with the inner workings of the brain more than we would ever have imagined? Author and cognitive neuroscientist Semir Zeki certainly thinks so. Zeki is a leading authority on the research surrounding the "visual brain". In his book Inner Vision, he ventures to explain to the reader how our brain actually perceives different works of art, and seeks to provide a biological basis for the theory of aesthetics. With careful attention to details and organization, he manages to explain the brain anatomy and physiology involved when viewing different works of art without sounding impossibly complicated – a definite plus for scientists and non-scientists alike who are interested in the topic of art and the brain. Throughout the book, Zeki supports his arguments by presenting various research experiments, brain image scans, and plenty of relevant artwork to clarify everything described in the text. By mostly focusing on modern masterpieces (which include Vermeer, Michelangelo, Mondrian, kinetic, abstract, and representational art), he convincingly explains how the color, motion, boundaries, and shapes of these unique works of art are each received by specific pathways and systems in the brain that are specially designed to interpret each of these particular aspects of the art, as opposed to a single pathway interpreting all of the visual input.

The subject matter that Zeki approaches here is no easy topic to clearly explain to others, especially since a whole lot remains to be discovered in the field itself. Yet Zeki does a superb job of explaining. In my neurobiology class, I recently learned that if we bang our arm or rub our hands together, it is not really the body that is feeling the pain of banging or the sensation of rubbing, but rather the brain itself. After hearing this idea, I was very surprised and excited to see that Zeki had actually devoted all of chapter 3 to dispelling the "myth of the seeing eye". Here he specifically points out that a painter does not paint with her eye; she paints with her brain (13). I was especially pleased that Zeki made this point, since we so easily forget that the eye is merely the organ through which the brain receives filtered input from the outside world. While it is true that our ability to see depends on the eye and the brain working hand in hand, and damage in either one will ultimately affect the other, only the brain is capable of transforming the necessary input or output so that we are able to see the painting before us. The eye only serves to transmit these signals from the outside world, to the brain, and back again. We only tend to think that people see with their eyes because of well-meaning but incorrect figures of speech commonly spoken in society (13-14). For example, we may hear something like "she has a good eye for painting ocean scenes" or "she eyes the angle of the Golden Gate Bridge just right – look how well she can sketch every line and curve on paper". Hearing statements such as these very often will eventually mislead us into thinking that it is only with the eye that one sees.

Another hotly debated issue within our class is if the brain does really equal behavior. Up until I read this book, I had always been skeptical of that equation; but now, after reading this book I have come to believe that the brain does equal behavior. The reason is due to Zeki's belief that "the function of art and the function of the visual brain are one and the same" and that "art is an extension of the functions of the brain" (1). It is not the statement itself that has changed my opinion, but rather the way in which he goes about proving the statement in every chapter.

I was very surprised to discover that the retina of the eye is not connected to all of the cerebral cortex; rather, it is connected to only a portion of the cortex that is considered the "vision center", or where images produced/received by the brain are processed. However, it does not end there – it is only the beginning. This vision center is made up of smaller vision centers, each intricately connected to each other in some way. Each center is specialized to process a certain aspect of a visual image; for example, the center Zeki labels "V1" is considered to be the cortical retina or "seeing eye" of the brain, since it selectively redistributes information received from an outside image to more specialized centers for processing. For example, information about color and wavelength would be sent the area known as "V4" to be interpreted by the brain.

It should be noted that while damage caused to V1 would most likely result in total blindness, damage done to one of the more specialized centers would result in the inability of the brain to process specific input relating specifically to the damaged area. Zeki relates one experiment performed where a sponge was presented to a woman who had some damage located in her "association" center located next to V1, but possessed no actual damage in V1 itself. In the experiment, the woman was still able to see the sponge, but found herself incapable of understanding what it actually was. For me, this discovery was solid evidence that the brain equals behavior, because the woman's damaged brain consequently led to her behavior, or her inability to understand what the object was that was placed in front of her. If one little damaged spot in the brain could affect her behavior that drastically, then this demonstrates that in general, whatever happens to the brain, happens inevitably to behavior. A deficit in the brain equals a deficit in the behavior as well.

Is not art a behavior of the artist then? The artistic brain yields artistic behavior. All artists' brains are similar, but only in the sense that they are all capable of exhibiting some type of artistic behavior. With this one exception in mind, I realize that all artists still possess brains that are very different from each other's. If this were not true, then I do not believe that we would see all of the various kinds of abstract, kinetic, and other forms of modern art on display in museums today. Different artistic brains yield different artistic behaviors, or different works of art (or even the ability to appreciate particular works of art). Thus, it only makes sense for me to conclude that people who are non-artists also have brains that are different from artists, since they are incapable of producing any type of artwork; in other words, they exhibit different behavior as opposed to the actual artist. For the majority of the chapters in the remainder of the book, I think this is a key point that Zeki distinctly presents to the reader.

What about people who are incapable of appreciating a particular kind of art? They too have different brains. For example, Zeki mentions that a person who is prosopagnosic will not appreciate portrait painting because she is incapable of recognizing faces, due to damage in the face recognition area of the brain. However, she can still enjoy looking at other kinds of art since the other parts of the brain responsible for interpreting those kinds of art have not been affected. This is because viewing certain kinds of art activates different parts of the brain's vision center. Hence, the same is true for the artist herself: she is only capable of painting an artwork that does not contain any elements that a damaged part of her brain's vision center would not be able to process.

Although Zeki has no possible way of proving this theory, I am especially intrigued by the way in which he tries to defend his idea – and doing it quite convincingly as well. Zeki devotes his last chapter entirely to the discussion of Monet's brain, actually questioning whether Monet's brain may have had some damage in its vision center. He comes to this conclusion after a careful observation of Monet's paintings of the Rouen Cathedral. This is a shock to read at first, because who would ever take a glimpse at Monet's paintings and claim that there was a possible abnormality in his brain? However, Zeki hypothesizes that Monet might have been dyschromatopsic, or limited in his ability to see colors (210). As uncomfortable as this makes me, I fear that Zeki might be right for he specifically notes how Monet failed to account for the varied lighting conditions in his paintings of the cathedral – this is significant because Monet painted the cathedral in all kinds of weather and lighting conditions. In each of the paintings, I observed how the brightness of the light depicted seemed to be the same throughout the whole picture. This is rather odd when given some considerable thought.

One of my last questions to Zeki's book is how he could explain how different artists manage to paint similar works of art. The answer is as simple as this: "different modes of painting make use of different cerebral systems" (215). I think the message he tries to communicate to the reader is that while different artists are capable of creating similar paintings, the paintings are never exactly alike because each artist makes use of different visual pathways in the brain to create her own unique work of art. Thus, here I think is another perfect example of how the brain equals behavior. It is again demonstrated here that different artistic brains will create distinct works of art.

Overall, I think that the book is deeply intriguing and engaging – it draws the reader in so intensely that she cannot break free until she reads the very last page. Zeki manages to bring to light so many new ideas about the visual brain. He takes what little we do know about the brain and distinguishes myth from fact. It is interesting to note how much of the book is really just hypothetical guesses proposed by Zeki, since there is still so much about the physiological workings of the brain that we have yet to discover. Nevertheless, I found it fun to read the book and compare the known facts to the theories and make guesses as to what might actually be found to be true someday. This is a most delightful book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest in uncovering the mysterious links that exist between the brain and visual art.


Comments

Art Lover's picture

Thank you very much for your

Thank you very much for your review! I have loved the book and your words simply resume and somehow explain some parts that I haven't completely understand. This is a very interesting subject and even the facts that Zeki mention maybe aren't confirmed yet, they make total sense!

Mary Shell's picture

The Creative Process as a survival tool in evolution

It is wonderful to see scientists explain how and why we create art...but they could never know what it is like to emerge your whole being into creating art. I am an artist and have been studying the creative process for over 15 years. What I have come to realize is that the human creative process was at one time in mankind's evolution,a survival tool. At the beginning of mankind,when shaman painted animals on walls of caves and everyone danced around a fire in altered states of consciousness preparing for a hunt,we did not know the difference between reality and imagination. The figures that were painted on cave walls were images of the future and past and they did not know the difference. Creating art was not a carefree craft for playtime. Art was serious voodoo. It carried messages deep within the psyche and touched the soul. At first man did not think from a logical standpoint. Our ancestor's reality was based on spirit and they acted upon the calling of the Gods through art.
So the question is: Do we still need art is our lives? Has our logical thinking surpassed or shadowed our creative process in creating art? What does art do to us when we gaze at it? A client once told me that 'artists are here on earth to remind us we have a soul? Does the soul still need art? yes, art is still a major aspect of being human. The images bypass the logic and go right to the subsconscious (or the soul). It is the true language of humankind...and our first language and it is universal...everyone understands art, and it has a different message for each of us.

Serendip Visitor's picture

semir zeki

Really enjoyed reading your explanation of arrt and our past. Have you read zeki's book? I'm thinking of buying it as I am an artist. Would you recommend it?

Serendip Visitor's picture

I do recommend it. I read it

I do recommend it. I read it in college and it is truly amazing!

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