The new issue of Seed contains a short piece by me called Beauty and the Brain, about the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which seeks to investigate the neural correlates of the appreciation of beauty in art.
Neuroaesthetics was pioneered by Semir Zeki, who has been criticized as making extravagant claims about what can be achieved by the scientific study of such subjective phenomena. The work may seem fanciful, but it could eventually have direct clinical applications: we know, for example, that depressed patients have a diminished appreciation of beauty, and a new study shows that viewing beautiful paintings can reduce the perception of pain.
I discuss some of Zeki’s work in my article, and then go on to look at how architectural design might influence the activity of hippocampal place cells, which are known to be involved in encoding representations of space. The photograph above, by Noah Kalina, appeared on the cover on the previous issue of Seed and was one of 15 in a photo essay called Labs at Night. It illustrates another interesting aspect of neuroaesthetics that had to be excluded from the piece due to space constraints.
The photo shows the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in California, which was designed by the great architect Louis Kahn. Jonas Salk himself collaborated with Kahn in the design, in the hope that the buildings would enhance the creativity of those working within it. In his book American Architecture: Ideas and Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century, Paul Heyer describes it thus:
[It] aspires within its own spirit to an order achieved through clarity, definition, and consistency of application. It stands as a testament to Kahn’s word, ‘Order is. ‘ Two parallel laboratories, each an uninterrupted 65- foot wide and 245-feet long and encircled by a perimeter corridor, flank a central court. The support elements to these totally flexible spaces are placed in a peripheral relationship to this corridor. They are the studies and offices for scientists, fractured in profile and vertical in rhythm, which line this central court, connected by bridges to the perimeter corridor and receiving views of the ocean by virtue of exterior walls angles toward it. The idea of simple and strong; the served space of laboratories where research is performed, the serving space of offices where thought initiates…The institute manifests beauty of mind and act; of the resolution and articulation of the major elements of the building…Even the component of structure derives from the need to enclose specific spaces, specifically and pertinently, rather than offer a general envelope within which specific space might then be designated. The central court, as a typical Kahn-like space of shimmering blue water, a band pointing toward the ocean epitomizing what human endeavor can accomplish at one scale with geometric clarity and authoritative but modest deliberation, to give to the scaleless sweep of the ocean, here the Pacific, a poignant gesture.