The neurobiology of aesthetic experiences and the significance of beauty

Lectures Talks and Workshops, Research
Tuesday 22nd March 2016 (17:00-18:00)
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  • Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Distinguished Lecture Series
  • Professor Semir Zeki
  • Professor of Neuroaesthetics, Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, University College London

Neurobiological experiments have shown that the experience of beauty, whether derived from sensory sources such as visual art or music, or from highly cognitive ones such as mathematics, correlates with activity in the same part of the emotional brain, field A1 of medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC). Thus, mirroring discussions in philosophies of aesthetics, which have always considered beauty in the abstract without tying it to any specific source, these experiments suggest that, in neural terms, too, there is an abstract quality to the experience of beauty.  These same experiments have also shown that the intensity of activity in mOFC is related directly and positively to the declared intensity of the aesthetic experience, thus addressing a critical question in the philosophy of aesthetics, namely whether aesthetic judgments can be quantified.

Plato regarded mathematical beauty as the highest form of beauty, since to him it revealed something about the structure of the Universe. This view has been echoed by other mathematicians and physicists, including Paul Dirac and like Bertrand Russell, Hermann Weyl, Michael Atiyah and others have placed a high value on the importance of beauty in mathematical formulations.  That the experience of mathematical beauty correlates with activity in the same part of the brain as the experience of beauty derived from more sensory sources, raises important questions about the role and uses of beauty not only in our daily experience but also in our efforts to understand the structure of the Universe in which our brains have evolved.