Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness

By Semir Zeki

Splendors and 
Miseries of the Brain cover

Splendors and Miseries of the Brain examines the elegant and efficient machinery of the brain, showing that by studying music, art, literature, and love, we can reach important conclusions about how the brain functions.

- discusses creativity and the search for perfection in the brain
- examines the power of the unfinished and why it has such a powerful hold on the imagination
- discusses Platonic concepts in light of the brain
- shows that aesthetic theories are best understood in terms of the brain
- discusses the inherited concept of unity-in-love using evidence derived from the world literature of love
- addresses the role of the synthetic concept in the brain (the synthesis of many experiences) in relation to art, using examples taken from the work of Michelangelo, Cézanne, Balzac, Dante, and others

Reviews of Splendors and Miseries of the Brain

“The guards who patrol the boundary between the two cultures will not like this book. They are sure that neuroscience has nothing to say about art, let alone the ideal love portrayed in art. They are hopelessly wrong of course. First, Semir Zeki is perfectly at home in both cultures and I am confident that there is no other book where you can learn about the cytoarchitecture of the cerebral cortex and the sufi poet Rumi. Furthermore, he can annoy scientists with as much skill as he can annoy artists. Second, this book is not about what neuroscience reveals about love and about art, but it is about what love and art reveal about the brain. Although the border guards may not realise this, all human experience, including love, is mediated through the brain. The more important the experience, the more it can reveal about the fundamental properties of the brain. This is not a bland book. It will challenge your preconceptions. This book reveals the intimate relationship between the fundamental function of the brain and the highest of human experiences.” Chris Frith FRS, University College London, Author of Making up the Mind

“The Brain Sciences hold out the great promise of being a natural bridge between the sciences, concerned with the nature of life and the universe, and the humanities, concerned with the nature of human existence. No one is in a better position to bridge this divide than Semir Zeki, and he has succeeded in illustrating how it must be done in this remarkable book, The Splendours and Miseries of the Brain.

Zeki has earlier pioneered the modern study of visual perception. He then developed a new and brilliant career - explaining the biology of the visual brain to the general reader. Most recently he has opened up a new field - neuroaesthetics - concerned with the biology of the human response to art. In this new book Zeki broadens his highly original approach and explores the neurobiological principles that underlie creativity in art and in literature, in love, and in human happiness, thereby laying down the gauntlet and outlining the challenges that face intellectuals in the 21st century.” Eric Kandel, University Professor and Kavli Professor, Director of Kavli Institute for Brain Sciences, Columbia University and Senior Investigator Howard Hughes Medical Institute

“Avete presente il retrogusto di delusione che si prova tornando in un luogo che si ricordava meraviglioso e che ora sembra insignificante? Si tratta di un sentimento del tutto naturale. Ha a che fare con l'insoddisfazione di Michelangelo che, scontento delle sue sculture, abbandonava il blocco di marmo incompiuto. E ha a che fare con l'ideale dell'amore romantico, che l'arte di tutti i tempi ha rappresentato come il sogno impossibile da realizzare, se non nella fantasia o nella morte. Splendori e miserie del cervello di Semir Zeki, neurofisiologo fondatore dell'Istituto di Neuroestetica di Londra, è molto più di un libro sul cervello. È un viaggio appassionante attraverso la letteratura e l'arte, alla scoperta delle possibili cause dell'infelicità umana, ma anche della bellezza e dell'amore. Il punto di vista è neuroscientifico, e come tale non può non essere riduzionistico. Ma, spiega l'autore, è un punto di partenza necessario per arrivare a porre nuove domande sui perché dell'arte. Lo splendore cui fa riferimento il titolo è il miracolo di ingegneria neurale che l'evoluzione ha messo a punto nella nostra specie: la capacità del cervello di produrre concetti. I concetti servono a rendere universale l'informazione sul mondo esterno desunta dalla percezione. La miseria consiste nell'infelicità causata dal non potere realizzare appieno, nella vita pratica, l'ideale che il nostro cervello impone di ricercare.

Esistono due tipologie di processi computazionali cerebrali, che Zeki definisce "concetti". I concetti ereditari, che sono innati e immutabili, e servono a organizzare l'informazione quando essa giunge dall'esterno alle aree del cervello visivo. I concetti acquisiti, in perenne mutamento, che sono una sintesi "ideale" di tutte le esperienze accumulate dall'individuo nella vita. Un esempio: avendo veduto migliaia di case, il nostro cervello sintetizza un'idea di "casa perfetta". Ma sarà difficile poterla ritrovare nella realtà. Non solo. Il nostro ideale di casa perfetta muta costantemente a causa dell'esperienza che si va accumulando negli anni. Lo stesso può valere per il concetto cerebrale di donna e uomo "perfetti", che è difficile da realizzare pienamente. Se nella vita di tutti i giorni vale il motto "chi si contenta gode", nell'arte invece vige il tentativo esasperato di cogliere l'attimo della perfezione assoluta, votandosi all'infelicità. Come nei versi di Shakespeare: «Quando penso che ogni cosa che nasce / resta perfetta per brevi istanti».” Anna Li Vigni, Il Sole 24 ORE

Latest news

  • New: Neurobiology and the Humanities by Semir Zeki will soon be published in Neuron
  • Coming soon: Non-binding relationship between visual features by Dragan Rangelov and and Semir Zeki will soon be published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
  • Upcoming lecture Oct 16 2014, UK: A talk to the Exeter Philosophy Society "The past and the future of neuroesthetics"
  • Upcoming lecture Nov 16 2014 12:40 Poland: Lecture "Subjective truths - from colour to beauty" at the Aspects of Neuroscience conference at Faculty of Biology, Warsaw University, (Kampus Ochota, Miecznikowa 1 Street, Warsaw), organized by the Neurobiology Students Scientific Club of Warsaw University
  • Upcoming lecture Dec 6 2014 16:45 Germany: A talk entitled "Neuroesthetics" at the Heidelberg Conference on "Embodiment in Evolution and Culture", Internationales Wissenschaften Heidelberg.
  • Future engagement May 26-28 2015, Greece: Plenary lecture at the meeting on aesthetics at the Aristotle University, Thessaloniki
  • Upcoming discussion May 29 2015, UK: Panel discussion in the context of the "Sculpting beauty: mind and body in ancient Greece" exhibition at the British Museum
  • Future engagement Jul 19-22 2016, Japan: A lecture at the 39th annual meeting of the Japanese Neuroscience Society, held at the Pacifica, Yokohama
  • Future engagement Jul 24-29 2016, Japan: A lecture at the International Congress of Psychology, held at the Pacifica, Yokohama
  • Now available: Parallel processing in the brain's visual form system: An fMRI study by Yoshihito Shigihara and Semir Zeki in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
  • Now available: Masking reveals parallel form systems in the visual brain by Yu Tung Lo and Semir Zeki in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
  • Now available: The role of parietal cortex in the formation of colour and motion based concepts by Samuel W. Cheadle and Semir Zeki in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
  • Now available: Semir Zeki's first book, A Vision of the Brain, can be downloaded here.
  • Now available: Perceptual asynchrony for motion by Yu Tung Lo and Semir Zeki in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
  • Now available: Varieties of perceptual instability and their neural correlates by Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki in Neuroimage.
  • Now available: The experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates by Semir Zeki, John Romaya, Dionigi Benincasa and Sir Michael Atiyah in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
  • Now available: The "Visual Shock" of Francis Bacon: an essay in neuroesthetics by Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
  • Now available: Clive Bell's "Significant Form" and the neurobiology of aesthetics by Semir Zeki is now available under open access in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
  • Now available: The brain's specialized systems for aesthetic and perceptual judgments by Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu is now available under open access in the European Journal of Neuroscience.
  • Now available: Parallelism in the brain's visual form system by Semir Zeki and Yoshihito Shigihara is now available in the European Journal of Neuroscience.
  • Now available: Splendors and Miseries of the Brain is now available in Greek and Polish (also available in Spanish, Italian and German).