Can neuroscience help an artist develop his theory of art and the brain?

A personal epiphany – art and perception


St Maria dell Ammiraglio, Palermo – the interior of a ‘Dream House’

Some years ago I found myself sitting in a vineyard in the Corbiere Hills of southern France. I was there trying to draw a stand of cypress trees. It wasn’t going well. I had no idea, nor any specific feeling to base my work on and felt lost as to how to approach the subject. In an attempt to break this dull spell, I started to form words in my head, words that would describe what I then thought were the characteristics of the trees. I started with the obvious – large, tall, dark, pointed, green. Then I moved into more emotional territory – powerful, portentous, foreboding, grim, and, carrying on, got to – disturbing, frightening, mysterious.

I stopped. In one moment I realised that the way I had been perceiving the material world in the past had been wrong. Or rather my description of my perceptions had been wrong. To neuroscientists what I am about to describe is common knowledge. To me at the time it exploded in my head like a bomb going off.

The words are critical. Before, I may have said ‘This tree is foreboding’. Now I had to say ‘The form of this tree gives rise in me a sense of foreboding’. The trees were nothing – or rather they were a mass of particles and energy doing what particles and energy do in given circumstances, what they cannot help doing. It was meaningless, indifferent. It was only by registering my brain-generated emotions in front of this mass of matter that I (my brain) gave them some ‘meaning’ or ‘identity’.

The image was entirely mine, happening in my brain. And the adjectives I attached to it gave it meaning, my meaning, a human meaning. The brain – my brain – ruled, created the world.

This simple idea led immediately to further questions – ‘How am I “seeing” and with what and where?’ ‘What is the nature of my relationship with the material world’ and ‘How can I explain the sense of “green”? The problems of consciousness had suddenly become conscious.

Anyone that day enjoying the view of these vineyards from a distance – the vibrant green rows of vines in vast fields set against blindingly white limestone hillsides – would have seen something out of the ordinary that day. They would have seen a man, for no apparent reason, suddenly appear from the vines, jump up and down in a mad dance and shout ‘Of course! Of course! – OF COURSE!’.

Art and neuroscience – the state of play

I am an artist, a painter, an inventor of images. It is strange – and not many years ago would have been unheard of – for someone like me to be writing about neuroscience. But this is the tenor of the times.  It is hardly possible to hear news of the arts these days without some reference to neuroscience. At the recent Reith Lectures given by the musician Daniel Barenboim, he was asked questions after his talk by two neuroscientists who were in the audience – Lawrence Parsons and Susan Blackmore. The fact that they had been invited to the lecture at all indicates the way things are going.

Why is this? The answer would seem to be due to the recent convergence of two things, one new, one age old.  These are, first, the arrival of fRMI scanners, and, second, artists’ prime interest in making their work affect the brains of their audiences. As Professor Semir Zeki has pointed out, artists have been acting as neuroscientists since the dawn of time. They have been attempting, by manipulating the perceptions of their audience, to induce changes in the brain’s activity. Zeki says that this has always been intuitive but that now, with the introduction of sophisticated scanners and other techniques, we can at last begin to see what is happening in the brain when it confronts the material world in general – and works of art in particular.

One would have thought that the artists among us would immediately be on the trail of these new insights into their activities. Not so. In truth, although things are changing as I write, the news coming from the laboratories has been seen by many as a possibly dangerous unveiling of the mysteries of creation that are their stock in trade. Many have turned their backs, saying that science has nothing to teach them about intuition and the ‘otherworldliness’ of the creative process.

I disagree with this.  I believe that what is emerging from the brain sciences marks the beginning of a profound revolution in our understanding of what we are and the way we exist in the material world. I believe that the descriptions that we hold of the nature of the human organism must change fundamentally, and with this, our deeper philosophies and the art that expresses them. This revolution, as important as the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions of the past, must also eventually alter the way we organize ourselves politically and socially. Neuroscientific descriptions of the processes of art (both for the artist and the audience) will change forever our understanding of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of creative activity.

One of the chief benefits of even a slight understanding of neuroscience in art is its empowering effect. It hands back to the viewer and artist the absolute relevance of their own reactions to art – and to life. It wrests cultural kingship away from the critics and hands it back to the individual. The individual’s response is what matters and is as valid as anyone else’s.

Lines, peak shifts and mirror neurons

The man who above all others set the ball rolling in the neuroscientific examination of visual art is Professor Semir Zeki. His seminal book ‘Inner Vision’ (1) laid a foundation of solid science for use in visual art experimentation. Semir Zeki also founded the virtual ‘Institute of Neuroesthetics’, a forum and meeting place for those with an interest in these matters.

Zeki relates many forms of art to what he describes as the brain’s quest to uncover the essential form of an object. This is clearly related at its heart with the Platonic idea of forms, in this case where the search for essential forms is seen as one of the prime functions of the brain. Admitting that most forms of painting are too complex to yield, as yet, meaningful results from experimentation, he felt he could make a start by examining various aspects of the visual brain and see if its workings correlated to how artists working in abstract forms put their images together.

This worked best with hard-edged abstraction – the style which uses the simplest of visual patterns. A chapter in his book examines the ‘neurophysiology of oriented lines’. It looks at how artists who were working with abstract forms (such as Mondrian, Van Doesburg and others) intuitively leant towards using vertical and horizontal straight lines in their work, believing them to have the clearest and ‘essential’ character in their search for artistic purism. Zeki writes ‘I have wondered whether there is any relationship between this emphasis on lines that artists, with the common aim of representing the “constant truths concerning forms” have used and the neurophysiology of the visual cortex, where cells that are selectively responsive to lines of specific orientation predominate’.

Indeed it seems that these artists argued about their intuitions on these matters to the finest degree. Mondrian took exception to Theo Van Doesburg using diagonal lines and wrote to him: ‘Following the high-handed manner in which you have used the diagonal, all further collaboration between us has become impossible’.

Professor V. S. Ramachandran has also shaken things up with an article, a collaboration with W. Hirstein, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (2) some years ago. In this they attempted to list the main factors traceable in brain reactions, which would seem to be essential for a work of art to effect its viewers. ‘Peak shift’ on this list describes how art often presents the brain with exaggerated forms of the natural world in order to enhance the stimulating effect.  This is all speculative but stimulating, of great interest and enormous fun. However, more interesting, I believe, is Ramachandran’s work on synesthesia4, which links the idea of that particular phenomenon (where for some people numbers seem to be also colours, sounds convey tastes etc.,) to the use of metaphor in art. His descriptions of neighbouring areas of the brain being cross-wired form a compelling diagnosis of how metaphor works and how it can unleash the infinitely playful constructions and reconstructions we make of our world image and which would seem to be the core of creativity.

The work on mirror neurons by the Italian neuroscientists Giacomo Rizzolatti (3) and Vittorio Gallese (3) is also of great significance to artists and their understanding of how what they create make their effects. The idea of mirror neurons firing in the same areas of the brain both in one performing an action and in one viewing it gets to the roots of visual communication in the arts. It also probably comes as a shock to artists to know that their communication has the possibility of going so deep as to almost create a shared consciousness. The idea of mirror neurons throws up many questions as to the nature of communication in human beings and must be of fundamental interest to artists and to audiences.

These are all fascinating explorations and ideas and may offer artists and critics some deeper understanding of their trade. But one must eventually ask – why does humankind bother to make art at all ?

Yet another ultimate theory of art and the brain and everything

As a complete theory of everything seems to be the Holy Grail of science then one might eventually consider a complete theory of art. At this early stage in the exploration of the brain it would be hard to base a complete theory purely on what we know to date. However, being an artist and not a scientist I am allowed room for fearless speculation in this area.

The arrival of reflective consciousness in human devlopment seems to have set in motion a war between an emotional reaction to the world and a reasoned, analytical, working out of it.  The evolutionary benefits to the species of consciousness are obvious – for example the ability to communicate across distances and time, ability to predict events, ability to self examine – and examine the result of that self-examination. But these come at a price.  The price is that we lose a large slice of ‘meaning’ invested in the material world through our emotional colouring of experience, the feeling that things and events have significance beyond utility. This is perhaps a milder version of the experience that some epileptic patients speak of moments before a seizure when they sense everything being of ‘cosmic significance’.

My contention here is that art is a manufactured form of experience that enables human creatures to overcome the prison of waking, reflective consciousness and allows them back into the world of myth and dream – where life is experienced in full blown emotion and vibrancy. One might relate the whole of art to a kind of sublimated ecstatic experience, a sublimation of that other ecstatic‘death in life’, orgasm. ‘Art involves producing multiple visual ‘Ahas!’ Ramachandran has said. ‘It is the visual foreplay before the final climax of object recognition’ (4).

Art has therefore to work on two levels – the first step must quiet or distract waking consciousness; the second, open up paths in the brain to emotional, numinous colouring of perceptions; to allow the limbic system, a seat in the brain of emotions, motivation and memory, to do its work unhindered, as far as possible, by conscious control.

This idea throws up images of our preconscious selves as back in some paradise, some garden of Eden; with the tasting of the fruit of the tree of knowledge presenting the arrival of consciousness. Our desires to return to the garden are the stuff of art.

The emotional colouring of experience is the way in which we identify ourselves and our surroundings. There are well-documented cases of people who have lost the‘limbic connection’, and though having all faculties of reason in place are at a total loss as to how to make decisions or judgements.  It seems to me that without our first constructing an identity based on an emotional reaction to our surroundings we cannot move about in the world – we have no relation to our surroundings and gets lost. I believe that this need for identity comes before the need for food or sex.

The two-fold path to meaning – narrative and material

It seems to me that there are two fundamental ways of investing works of art with significance. One way is, in a ‘top down’ process, by projecting a ‘narrative’ onto the object in question. This means that the art object can be anything – from the most kitsch postcard of a saint, to a plain wedding ring, to an autograph of a pop star or a meaningless scribble (see the drawings of Tracy Emin).  These objects do not need to conform in any way to any of our rules of ‘neuroesthetics’. They will produce an emotional reaction in the beholder only because viewers have a narrative in their minds which involves the object, rather than being effected by the form of the object itself. The brain seems to needs some form of conscious ‘explanation’ of the object before it reacts. In effect it creates a significant symbol. Does this conform to our definition of art as an attempt to escape consciousness? Yes – because the object is merely a stimulus for the narrative – it is the narrative that is the effective material.  It’s as if, as in a religious ceremony, the conscious thought descends to meet a remembered or stored emotion..

The other way of experiencing works of art is related to this, but can be refined beyond it.  There are those viewers of an object who can react not only to the attached narrative but also to whatever material qualities it possesses. Any work of art which conforms to our neuroesthetics but which also carries a narrative may augment its power with the combination.

Beyond that, there are those who can react to works of art that have no narrative at all, relying solely on their perceptions of the object to give them a satisfactory reaction. Let me call this the ‘material’ esthetic.

It could be argued that giving attention to one’s perception of the object itself might offer a more profound experience of the material world than the imposition of thoughts on an arbitrary artifact. One thing is certain. The experience of objects via narrative is limited to the society in which the narrative holds currency. It follows then that objects, which do not conform in some way to archetypal forms of visual communication, have limited use. A place, object or image without esthetic qualities, which even so may have enormous significance to a particular social group, would have none whatsoever if presented to a society ignorant of the narrative attachment. On the other hand, an object that conformed to any of the defined ways of stimulating a viewer’s brain by its own material nature, could be valued universally.

It may also be that the war between a conscious approach to understanding the material world (measuring, reasoning) is at one end of a spectrum of which the emotional, intuitive grasp is at the other. This might elucidate the conflict between science and religion, although it may better demonstrate the danger of narratives in art being seen as universal truths rather than the malleable and playful entities they are.

Bearing these ideas in mind, I would like to make an attempt at a theory of art which might give some guidance when we are confronted to the extraordinary variety of esthetic experiences available to us in the modern age – both contemporary and historic and from all cultures.

The temples of art – and the brain

From the evidence we have, it would seem that modern humans started to make ‘religious’ places and indulge in rituals from the beginnings of consciousness – say between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago. The temples, cathedrals, ashrams and monasteries have always been with us in one form or another. And they have made their effects on our brains by means of art – both narrative and material. From the design of the building, the decoration and images, the ritual and language (theatre), the music and even the incense used are all working on one’s sensory perceptions to allow the profound experience of ‘limbic emotional colouring’ to take effect. This can only take place (aided by a diminution of conscious activity in the brain) in a kind of dreamtime. It is the purpose, I believe, of art to first induce that state and second, once it is achieved, to stimulate emotional activity in order to give significance to the experience.

One can see that the brain, inventing the world as it does, when deprived of material to work on, will fill in from its store of ‘best fit’ memories and images. Consider the extraordinary power of dream images. When we sleep, deprived of sensory input, the brain wanders at will through its store of memories, emotions, images and moods, creating from this a parallel world for us to wander in. In other instances of sensory and social deprivation we see the willingness of the brain to conjure up, without our asking, anything it deems might be useful to us in our struggle to make ‘sense’ of the world and to survive in it. There are wonderful examples of this to found in the annals of mountaineering where isolated climbers have been ‘visited’ by ‘helpers’, often in the form of old men, who have offered companionship and advice.

I believe that the ‘sacred’ places we have invented are specifically arranged to form a place isolating us from conscious day to day transactions, conducive to the descent and ascent into and from the subconscious, emotional world with which we crave contact.

With the rise of rationalism and the easing off of religious dogma in the west, came the rise of the theatres, new ‘dream houses’ which have in more recent times spawned the cinema and, as private ‘temples’, television, computers and the iPod. Given recent experiences, I grudgingly include art galleries in this list. That said, the current art form of the installation is a powerful example of the human craving for a ‘sacred’ space. The battle for emotional identity goes on all around us and is particularly fierce in our age, when computers and social organisation would seem to be trying their best to wrest our individual personas from us.

The Granada Cinema, Tooting, London.
Built in the style of a Gothic Cathedral, the Granada (now a bingo hall) is a very strong hint of the relation between the theatre of religion and the theatre of cinema.

So – we have an organism that seeks above all else to imbue its perceptions with emotional meaning, thereby constructing an identity by which it can place itself in the world. The arrival of reflective consciousness has in part taken away the immediate emotional reaction to the world that this condition requires. Art has been a natural emanation of the brain in its need to keep the lines of communication between the frontal cortex and the limbic system open and in good running order – the key to identity and to survival in the mysterious material world in which we find ourselves. Our problem has always been to separate these mythological, emotional sign posts from the analytic truths of the scientific exploration of the universe.

As a coda let me add these words.  After all this working out, in the end our minds blank at the mystery, not of our self-consciousness, but of existence itself. The hard problem of consciousness is not how matter becomes mind or how mind creates meaning, but how we came to be in a position to ask – ‘why this – and not nothing?’


Having said that, I am left with a few questions which the neuroscientists among you may or may not be inclined to examine. It may be that the answers are out there already, in which case I would be happy to be shown the direction. But if they are not, perhaps there are those of you who might be interested enough to take up the challenge and explore these ideas.

I will therefore leave you with some questions which keep me awake at night – I look forward to the sedative of knowledge which may allow me rest.

  • Is there any neuroscientific model for the systems and processes I have described here?
  • What is the nature of the transactions between conscious thought processes and the unconscious systems – both bottom up and top down?
  • What are physical means of synaptic transactions which imbue a thought, image or memory with its ‘meaning’. In other words, what is the nature of the areas of the brain in which this colouring takes place?
  • Movement – illusory or real. We know that the V5 area of the visual brain responds to movement. But what part of the brain (if it is different) reacts to illusory movement? And what is the relation between these neurons and the mirror neurons responding to movement? Do mirror neurons react to an illusion of action as to a real action? Related to this is the problem of the ‘trace’ of a movement. Does a brush stroke which contains the trace of an action stimulate V5 and/or the associated mirror neurons? This would seem to be the case, as it would appear that brush strokes, particularly in eastern calligraphy, would seem to carry the movement of the writer’s whole body through our reaction to the traces of the brush over the surface.
  • How, when we give ‘attention’ to an object by visual examination, does the mechanism work which seems to ditch the local, immediate associations, memories and emotions initially attached to the object when we first encounter it? In repeating a word, the word eventually drops its meaning and becomes a sound. I have experienced this in examining subjects visually. The local associations drop away and one is left with an object. Lucien Freud once said that he would like to paint a head as if it were just another limb. How does this work?

Garry Kennard

1. Semir Zeki ‘Inner Vision’.  Oxford University Press 1999. SIBN 0 19 850519 1 (Hbk)

2.  V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, The Science of Art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies. Volume 6, No.6/7, (June/July 1999)

3. The web site for the University of Parma offers excellent downloads of Rizzolatti and his colleague’s research papers.

4. V. S. Ramachandran lecture. New York Academy of Science, March 2006: ‘Synesthesia: The Key to Understanding Language, Metaphor and Abstract Thought’.
This lecture also covers briefly the ideas in the JCS article mentioned above. The web lead here will allow you to both listen to the lecture and see the slides.