Splendours and Miseries of The Brain

A few years ago I read ‘Splendours and Miseries of The Brain’ by Semir Zeki. Zeki explores what our appreciation of art and music might tell us about the brain. For example I recall a section where he writes that we enjoy works that are somewhat unfinished because it leaves room for our imagination to fill in the gaps. As far as I recall the writing is backed up by studies using brain scans to monitor people’s reception of artworks.

I haven’t looked back at the book since reading it, but I remember that although I found parts of it interesting, I ended up thinking “so what”? If we explain our experience of looking at art in terms of what is happening in the brain, it does not seem sufficient to encompass the subjective experience of art. I am not suggesting that there is something mystical about art (or love, which is the other topic of the book) but I am mindful that art is a satisfying, multimodal experience, whilst an explanation of what art does to the brain is not (well not in the same way at least). I write this as a reminder to myself, not to get bogged down in theories of language and perception. I write it as a reminder to play.

In the article by Robert Finlay that I referred to in my last post he quotes a poem from Keates. I also thought it worth repeating here.

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow. . . .

(John Keats, “Lamia,” in The Complete Poems of John Keats (New York: Modern Library, 1994), p. 155.