Tag Archives: the brain

The Penumbra


The utter mystery of what transpires beneath the folds of the brain is profound. And love, more perhaps than any other emotion, reaches into nearly every dark shadow of our gray matter. Our brains want love, need love, and are improved by love. And sex too for that matter. According to The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain, by Judith Horstman, not only are love and sex good for your brain, they are good for it in different ways. More than that, one merely has to think of love or sex to benefit.

Just the thought of love or sex can improve brain performance, but in different ways. Thoughts about the two states have different impacts on performance: Love makes us creative, whereas sex makes us analytical (Horstman 88).

A friend jokingly asked me, which, in that case, would be better for SATs? Sex, obviously—but who has to tell a teenager to think about sex?

Can it be said that sex is left brain and love is right brain? On the face of it, it makes sense. Sex is obviously very action, ‘now’ oriented, necessarily focusing on details of the event. Love, on the other hand, is expansive and discursive, reaching into the future, and back into the past as well.

And this all made me think of another book I just finished, The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson. To easily test this notion of right and left thinking (and I did test a friend to verify) one can think about a slightly complex question involving language (the example question in the book was: name three synonyms for boredom) one looks to the left (which the right side of the brain controls) whereas when the question is a mathematical question requiring some thought (how many corners does a cube have?) one searches into the right field of vision for the answer. This is one of the ways scientists determine that the right and left hemisphere of the brain dominate different modes of thinking.

But here is an interesting consideration: likewise, when we recall negative memories we tend to look to the left as the right side of our brains is activated. Positive memories will induce a rightward gaze.

positive and negative emotions are distinguished by activation in the left and right prefrontal cortex, respectively (Richards 31).

Davidson’s research led him to discover that “positive” and “negative” emotions were largely processed in different regions of the brain. Why might this be, he asks? He speculates that it comes down to qualities that every emotion balances between: “approach” and “avoidance.”

Whether to approach or avoid is the fundamental psychological decision an organism makes in relation to its environment (Richards 39).

It is fundamental, and the brain has evolved in such a way, perhaps, in order to keep these two competing drives neatly separated.

But back to sex and love. One can see how this may fit in. Sex depends upon an “approach” sort of instinct—that seems obvious. Does that mean that love reigns in the “avoidance” hemisphere? It would seem so. I hasten to interject here that, I think, one must step away from value judgments about “positive” and “negative” for a moment to follow my train of thought. There is much more going on in each hemisphere of the brain than can be reduced to “good” and “bad.” Not to mention the obvious fact that each brain is individual (a driving thesis in Richard’s book), complex, and each region of the brain deeply, inextricably interconnected. So, that said, the more I read about the subject, the more I begin to see a pattern which begins to lead my research question: is love a mechanism that works under the constraints of avoidance or limits. Why yes, of course: I love this and not that, I love you and not someone else.

I am starting to see love as a beautiful process which quiets the noise of all the myriad choices we would otherwise be overwhelmed by. It makes for specificity. It simplifies and concentrates by naturally encouraging an avoidance of things I don’t love.

I have been focusing on the senses’ relationship to the emotion of love, and I see this sort of manifesting in those realms as well. It’s quite fascinating. I have to think more on this, follow my thoughts more thoroughly, but one thing that I find truly lovely about our brains, and love in the brain, is the complexity and the simplicity: an unavoidable truth that there is a wholeness in the peaks and valleys.



Our Hearts

IMG_6744The problem with the burgeoning, if thrilling, forays into the neurology of love and the study of the brain with its recipe of chemicals and influences both inborn and learned, is that at the end of the day—what do we know? It is not that we know nothing, of course we know a lot—oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin, and all the attending receptors, neuropeptides and neurotrophins—we know the ingredients! But what does it make?

Love, as a topic of scientific inquiry, has long suffered from a reputation of frivolity as far as reasoned science is concerned, particularly romantic love. As Kayt Sukel relates in her book Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, the attempts to approach romantic love while maintaining a vestige of objective scientific pride resulted in no studied structures of understanding and a lot of very dry synonms:

There was already ample evidence in neuroscience literature to suggest that love was a worthy topic of research. But the scientists never called it such, avoiding it like the dirty word it is. Instead they referred to the related topics of pair-bonding, monogamy, attachment, and mating behaviors (3).

Perhaps if we call it pair-bonding we won’t remember what fools for love we are. Nice try guys, but love is now a subject that is being given some serious attention despite the fact that many of us—those who come up with terms such as mating behaviors included—make asses of ourselves in allegiance to this essential aspect of our beings.

The science is new and inconclusive. Oh, but the temptations to conclude! To draw deep breathes of poetic justification over the mundane chemical imbalances precipitated by love.

Take neurotrophins, also called nerve growth factor (NGF), they are proteins involved in synaptic plasticity—which is the ability of the connections between neurons to change (36). In couples who report to be wildly in love, or “romantically afflicted” (ha. ha.), the levels of NGF in the blood stream are significantly elevated (37). Like all hormone hysteria associated with the event-encounter (as Alain Badiou terms it) of falling in love, the levels taper off and normalize after one to two years, but scientists can see there is a strong elevation during the seismic event of falling in love. What scientists can not yet tell us is—why? And to what purpose?

The rate at which hard-scientific analysis can devolve (or evolve, depending on your disposition) into straight-up poetry of speculation, at least for me, is enough to make one’s head spin. It is too hard to end with we don’t know. For goodness sake, these proteins are involved in synaptic plasticity!

Doesn’t it sound lovely and logical? Positively poetic? One falls in love and what is the first thing that has to happen? You must change. You must allow the other to change you. That our brains chemically pave the way for these changes to transpire on a synaptic level is beautiful. Love does that.

Sacrificing a Thousand Apparent Truths

The brain, as I have said before, needs to acquire knowledge about the permanent, essential and constant properties of objects and surfaces, in a world where much is continually changing. To do this, it must discount all the changes that are superfluous, indeed an impediment, to acquiring that knowledge; it must, in the words of Glees and Metzinger, ‘sacrifice a thousand apparent truths’ 
—Semir Zeki, Inner Vision (185).


14th & 1st, L line Florist, Victoria Accardi (2016)

The question, what is art? is one of seemingly perpetual interest and discussion. I’m not quite fool enough to attempt an answer, nor to even believe that an answer is possible, but one thing I do believe is that art is the constant. As far back as our human minds can stretch into our history—there is art. I therefore think a better question is, why is that? Semir Zeki, in his wonderful book Inner Vision proposes a possible basis upon which an answer to that question can begin to be understood. Zeki begins, within his field of expertise: the neurology of vision.

[The] proliferation of newly discovered visual areas, many of which are specialised to process different aspects of the visual scene such as form, colour and motion, [raise] important questions about why the brain needs to process different attributes in different compartments […] vision is an essentially active search for essentials (21).

What Zeki proposes is that art, essentially, works the same way, or, shares the same purpose.

The neurological definition of art that I am proposing—that it is a search for constancies, during which the artist discards much and selects the essentials, and art is therefore an extension of the functions of the visual brain—is meant to have very broad applications (22).

By which he means that our aesthetic likes and dislikes are not covered under his thesis, but do rely upon it, because, “art must, after all, obey the laws of the brain” (125). And the laws are much more complex and fascinating then one might think. It is not simply a straight shot from “seeing” to “understanding,” both of these processes are more complex and more tightly bound to each other than previously imagined. The fun thing about Zeki’s work and passions, is that he looks to other vital areas of life, like love and art, to present evidence which science is newly discovering, but which art has always understood—at least insomuch as art unknowingly (innately?) exploits and reflects the brain’s method of organizing information. On the one hand, that seems obvious—painting (which is Zeki’s focus in this book) is obviously a ‘visual’ art and so it stands to reason that ‘successful’ art must obey visual parameters and preferences of line, color, form, and motion.

The brain, as it turns out, has highly specialized cells that are uniquely interested in single attributes—like color, form, or motion—and these cells are both concentrated in areas of the brain and also widely diffused (most dramatically in the cells concerned with form). More than that:

Recent experiments that have measured the relative times that it takes to perceive colour, form and motion show that these three attributes are not perceived at the same time, that color is perceived before form which is perceived before motion […] This suggests that the perceptual systems themselves are functionally specialized and that there is a temporal hierarchy in vision, superimposed upon spatially distributed parallel processing systems (66).

Fascinating stuff. The book expounds on all manner of visual maladies which have done a lot of work in showing just how specialized the processes are and then goes on to look at art (mostly modern) to point out philosophical consistencies between what artists (impressionists, cubists, modernists, fauvists) say they are trying to explore or achieve with what we know (which is some, but not all) neurologically about what the brain’s visual system tries to accomplish. Zeki’s brilliance is that he conjoins two disciplines for the same purpose. Artistic inquiry naturally has a longer, richer history than neurological inquiry, and yet the former seems to possess what artistic discourse lacks: the promise of quantitative and qualitative comprehension (seems to, at least….). Art has always been a difficult subject to capture in language, as Zeki writes,

Language is a relatively recent evolutionary acquisition, and it has yet to catch up with and match the visual system in its capacity to extract essentials so efficiently. To describe the power of art in words constitutes, in the lines of T. S. Eliot, ‘a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment’ (9).

All the same, sometimes we come out with some hilarious accuracy: Mondrian, for instance, whom we all know had a deep and abiding appreciation for the brain’s preference for horizontal and vertical lines, heroically defended the wisdom of our visual organizing system to Theo van Doesburg (founder of De Stijl group) writing to him:

Following the highhanded manner in which you have used the diagonal, all further collaboration between us has become impossible. For the rest, sans racune (115).

Well. What more can one say?


*painting by my daughter Victoria Accardi. To see more of her work go here.

Give me ambiguity or…Give me something else!

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.