splendors and miseries of the brain/semir zeki

Semir Zeki is a one-person interdisciplinary team: part neurobiologist, part art historian, and part philosopher. Expanding on his original research into the neurobiology of color vision, Zeki proposes the brain as a knowledge-gathering entity that functions through inherited (biological) and synthetic (experiential) concepts, which organize all sensory data into consciousness. For Zeki, there is no reality outside of the knowledge-organizing concepts of the brain. The beauty of his system is that it allows for both a universalized reality produced by the inherited concepts shared by every human brain and individualized perception based on synthetic concepts that are unique and environmental.

 This is where things get interesting. Unwilling to limit himself to the evidence provided by current scientific research, Zeki expands his investigation into the products of the brain—philosophy, art, and literature—using them as data with which to reconstruct more complex brain concepts, namely love and beauty. For Zeki, beauty is produced by an inherited concept to structure visual perception and love by a desire for unity/union with another individual. Unfortunately (and here’s the miseries) neither of these concepts can be fulfilled by lived experience, leaving every human being a tragic victim of biological over-achievement. Creativity is the brain’s way of trying, through art and culture, to either make this gap understandable or to bridge it (and so the splendors).

 Not to worry if you don’t comprehend the science immediately, Zeki will repeat it many many times. And even if you don’t want to believe that biological processes underlie a kind of human universalism (think neuro-neo-structuralism), Zeki’s cultural readings (Plato, Kant, Rimbaud, Cezanne, Islamic poetry, Hindu mythology, Freud, et. al.) are revealing and fresh. Best of all, miseries or not, Zeki has proposed a happy ending: a brain hard-wired for optimism in spite of all evidence to the contrary.