One of the world's leading neuroscientists is to search for the neural and biological basis for creativity, beauty and love after receiving over £1 million from the Wellcome Trust, the UK's largest medical research charity. The research will bring together science, the arts and philosophy to answer fundamental questions about what it means to be human.
Professor Semir Zeki from University College London (UCL) has received a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award to establish a programme of research in the new field of "neuroaesthetics". The research will build on his previous work into the neural mechanisms behind beauty(1) and love(2).
Together with Professor Ray Dolan, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, Professor Zeki will look at questions that have been debated for millennia by writers, artists and philosophers and yet have been little studied by neurobiologists: Can we measure beauty objectively" How are beauty and love related" What does it mean to be happy"
"All human societies place a high premium on art and the pursuit of beauty," says Professor Zeki. "We all value and reward creativity. We all want to pursue happiness. But what do these entities mean in concrete, neurobiological terms" We hope to address these issues experimentally. The results will not only increase our knowledge about the workings of the human brain but will also give deep insights into human nature and how we view ourselves."
Neuroesthetics aims to illuminate the brain's workings through its cultural products in a similar way to how neuroscientists study the brain through malfunctions caused by disease. However, Professor Zeki believes its impact may be much wider.
"The new field of neuroaesthetics will teach biologists to use the products of the brain in art, music, literature and mathematics to better understand how the brain functions," he says. "Success will encourage an interdisciplinary approach to other fields, such as the study of economics or jurisprudence in terms of brain activity. This will have a deep impact on social issues."
Using Wellcome Trust funding, Professor Zeki hopes to attract students and researchers from the sciences, arts and humanities in truly interdisciplinary research. Their work will be overseen by an Advisory Board that will include author AS Byatt, physician, opera producer and broadcaster Sir Jonathan Miller and Dr. Deborah Swallow, Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
"Professor Zeki is a Renaissance Man for the twenty-first century," says Professor Richard Morris, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust. "His research sees no boundaries between science and the arts and humanities and will provide an exciting insight in issues that strike at the heart of what it is to be human."
The Wellcome Trust has a long history of bridging the divide between science and the arts. As well as being the UK's largest independent funder of medical research, it funds imaginative and experimental arts projects exploring biomedical science and recently opened a £30 million new cultural venue, Wellcome Collection, dedicated to medicine, life and art.