Art for Love’s Sake

Recent neurobiological research has shown that viewing art stimulates the brain in a way that mirrors the experience of romantic love. The study, conducted by Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, scanned and mapped the brains of participants who had been asked to look at a variety of paintings from such artists as Botticelli, Turner, Monet and Cezanne. It was found that experiencing art releases into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain a significant quantity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a biochemical associated with love, happiness and sociability, as well as drug use and certain psychological disorders.

The result comes at an ideal time for the art world in Britain, which has felt itself to be targeted by the extensive cuts in public spending. The correlation between aesthetic experience and happiness gives extra leverage in justifying the arts according to standards of public interest, a justification which normally consists in pointing out the economic benefits of the revenue which art institutions can generate. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Stephen Deuchar, director of the arts charity Art Fund, said:

I have always believed art matters profoundly so it is exciting to see some scientific evidence to support the view that life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art

Professor Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics also stands to be of high value to the philosophy of art. This latest link between art and love is just one of many discoveries made by Zeki which coincide almost seamlessly with what artists and theorist about art have said for centuries, perhaps even for thousands of years. Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, recounts a speech in praise of Love (Eros) made by Socrates which describes a journey of ascent from sexual love, through aesthetic appreciation of the body, to a spiritual love of the soul, arriving finally at the contemplation of the Platonic Form of Beauty itself.

Zeki welcomes the confluence of art, philosophy and modern neuroscience which appears in his work on neuroaesthetics generally, and claims that ‘the overall function of art is an extension of the function of the brain’. What Zeki has isolated is a shared tendency evident in the models of human cognition used both by neuroscientists working on the visual faculties of the brain and by artists and art theorists throughout history who have commented on what art is, how it functions, and how it is enjoyed. A primary function of the brain, Zeki tells us, is to acquire useful knowledge about our surroundings, and to achieve this the brain must process the sensory data in such a way as to identify constancies. If the brain did not produce a selective picture of what is given by visual experience, the result would be a chaotic and inconstant stream of colours, shapes and motion. The function of the visual brain is to provide us with the essential, permanent or enduring characteristics of objects and events, without which the information requisite for life would not be possible. This function of the brain, according to Zeki, is reflected in theoretical writing about art, and is exploited in the styles and techniques of art creators in the absence of explicit knowledge of the neuroscience that grounds it. Philosophers of art especially, from Plato and Plotinus to Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, have emphasised the tendency, or perhaps the duty, for human cognition to aspire to achieve a knowledge of the essential natures of things, a function which finds its apotheosis in their respective theories about art. In this sense, then, the function of art is an extension of the function of the brain.

Zeki even goes so far as to say that ‘artists are neurologists’, and that they study the brain ‘with techniques that are unique to them and reaching interesting but unspecified conclusions about the organisation of the brain’. The stimulation of the orientation selective cells is a constituent element in appreciating Kasimir Malevich or Barnett Newman, and area V5 of the visual cortex of the brain, associated with processing motion, is an essential part of admiring  Alexander Calder’s artistic mobiles.

Zeki is careful to stress that his neurobiological account is by no means the whole story of aesthetic appreciation, but he is convinced that the brain activity which he describes plays a necessary role. He also remains adamant that knowledge of the science behind the experience of art will not detract from such experience. One might add, however, that in terms of aiding our ability to admire art, such a theory may not contribute anything either. The advantage of artists’ and philosophers’ proclamations of art, though sometimes hyperbolic, mystical and metaphysically laden, is that they not only give some indication of the function and value of art abstractly, which this research has satisfyingly shown to have been on the right lines, but they also give a real sense of this phenomenon.

Related Philosophy Compass Articles:

Aesthetics and Cognitive Science


Volume 4, Issue 5, September 2009, Pages: 715–733, Dustin Stokes

Cognitivism and the Arts


Volume 3, Issue 4, July 2008, Pages: 573–589, John Gibson

Computationalism in the Philosophy of Mind


Volume 4, Issue 3, May 2009, Pages: 515–532, Gualtiero Piccinini

2 thoughts on “Art for Love’s Sake”

  1. Isn’t the image the Pygmalion/Galatea myth? Don’t know the painter. Sculptor creates woman, falls in love with her, THEN she becomes human. My Fair Lady is the fun version with music.

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