The brain creates, according to its own rules, the knowledge that we have.
-Semir Zeki, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness (27)
By beginning his book focused on neurological constancies of the innate brain, that is: the one we’re born with before (as my step-father loves to gleefully quote) “they fuck you up, your mum and dad…” Semir Zeki lays the groundwork for his soul crushing conclusions. I don’t want to impugn Zeki, he in no way blames mum and dad – that is merely an indication of my own learned brain’s irreverent cheek. Forgive me.
It has been shown that color is perceived before orientation and that expressions on faces are perceived before their identity (37).
Color is just one brain concept that is hard wired for constancy. Even when the reality changes (say, from morning to evening light) we still perceive red as red, and we “see” it first, before we may even understand what it is we are looking at, we know it’s red.
Concept formation is one of the great triumphs of the brain but it also exacts a very heavy toll (47).
What the book is so excellently and fascinatingly working towards is the universally shared brain concept of love as a feeling of in-unity with another. In unity– I actually have to pause every time I write or think on that- its succinct precision of definition is quite beautiful.
Fighting against love is fighting against biology (132)
There is so much we don’t know about the brain, and as a brilliant doctor friend of mine reminds me, just because areas “light up” consistently only tells us just that much – areas light up. Still, for such an all-consuming yet (largely) academically and scientifically ignored topic, Zeki’s book is fascinating entrée.
The brain is organized to project its own interpretation to the incoming visual stimulus. And as we have seen, inherited brain concepts are immutable (85).
One of those inherited concepts is ambiguity. Ambiguity, Zeki tells us, is “constant,” which is the very quality that gives art its rich and endlessly creative interpretive life. The ambiguity of the innate brain allows for our different “learned brain” interpretations and perceptions. This is that delicate space in between the artist’s work and our experience of that work. Zeki cites myriad artists and writers whom exemplify a miraculous perfection of ambiguity and:
The difficulty of representing the synthetic brain concept or ideal, and the advantages of leaving much to the mind (111).
Reading Splendors and Miseries of the Brain is such an intellectually exciting endeavor that the soul crushing thesis sneaks up…yes, Zeki is taking us neural pathway by neural pathway to the fatalistic conclusion of the near impossibility of realizing what our brains so stubbornly create and insist upon: the Ideal. The root of all of our discontent, (historically proven in literature, art and music of the centuries past) is but a hopeless quest to experience a synthesis between our Ideal concept of love with reality. To experience the sublime – in unity with another, whether it be sacred or profane- no difference seems to exists within the brain, the lucky few sublimate their disappointment into the highest expressions of art- the rest of us….well, we have the pleasure of appreciation, and we have our dreams. That’s something.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter
-Shakespeare, quoted in Splendors (199).
*title – a favorite joke of a friend of mine.