Splendors and Miseries of the Brain - Love,Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness
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More About This Title Splendors and Miseries of the Brain - Love,Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness


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


Semir Zeki is a visual neurobiologist in the Department of Cognitive Neurology at University College London. Zeki has pioneered the study of the primate visual brain and furthered research on how affective states are generated by visual inputs. He has published extensively in his field, including the books Inner Vision: an exploration of art and the brain (1999) and A Vision of the Brain (Blackwell Scientific, Oxford), and has also co-authored a book with the late French painter Balthus, entitled La Quête de l’essentiel (1995).


List of Figures vii

Note to the Reader ix

Acknowledgments x

Introduction 1

PART I Abstraction and the Brain 7

1 Abstraction 9

2 The Brain and its Concepts 21

3 Inherited Brain Concepts 26

4 The Distributed Knowledge-Acquiring System of the Brain 35

5 The Acquired Synthetic Brain Concepts 42

6 The Synthetic Brain Concept and the Platonic Ideal 46

7 Creativity and the Source of Perfection in the Brain 50

PART II Brain Concepts and Ambiguity 59

8 Ambiguity in the Brain and in Art 61

9 Processing and Perceptual Sites in the Brain 65

10 From Unambiguous to Ambiguous Knowledge 73

11 Higher Levels of Ambiguity 87

PART III Unachievable Brain Concepts 99

Introduction 101

12 Michelangelo and the Non finito 102

13 Paul Cézanne and the Unfinished 111

14 Unfinished Art in Literature 120

PART IV Brain Concepts of Love 129

Conte by Arthur Rimbaud 131

15 The Brain's Concepts of Love 132

16 The Neural Correlates of Love 137

17 Brain Concepts of Unity and Annihilation in Love 150

18 Sacred and Profane 158

19 The Metamorphosis of the Brain Concept of Love in Dante 170

20 Wagner and Tristan und Isolde 182

21 Thomas Mann and Death in Venice 193

22 A neurobiological analysis of Freud's Civilization and its Discontents 203

Notes 213

Index 227


"'Courageous and carefully considered ... Zeki's book is wide in its sympathies and sources, and it deserves attention as part of a fascinating enquiry set to continue for many years to come." (Brain, November 2009)

“Set ... quite apart from the snappiness of most contemporary science-writing ... the book thinks hard, feels warmly and puts out provocative suggestions.” (London Review of Books, October 2009)

“I enjoyed reading this book and appreciated the attempt of the author to bridge the expansive chasm between experimental result on visual sensory input and the intimate human experiences for which we all strive.” (The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, September 2009)

"Zeki’s book has a beautiful and enigmatic cover and title. Zeki explores the unachievable through the works of artists and writers, concluding with Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents. Counsellors with a background both in neuroscience and an interest in the arts will find it a fascinating read." (Therapy Today, September 2009)

"An exuberant read." (Times Higher Education, April 2009)

"The book offers a glimpse into the physiological, neurological and emotional mechanisms of the most profound human part of our experience." (Yoga and Health, February 2009)

“This is a brave and unusual book¯what you are trying to do is look at the detailed neuroarchitecture of the brain, your particular specialty is how the brain sees (vision), and then apply it to a wider range of cultural ideas. I loved this book.” (Andrew Marr, Start The Week, Radio 4, November 2008)

"What was once dangerous territory is now the hottest theme in brain research. the subtitle of Semir Zeki's excellent new book is Love, Creativity and the Quest for Human Happiness ... .One of the world's leading neurophysiologist [Zeki] has turned to brain imaging to explore matters as seemingly outside brain science's territory as beauty in literature and art - and even 'romantic love.'" (Guardian, December 2008)

“This is going to lead to a new way of writing about the arts, and a new audience for certain kinds of science at the same time. (Start The Week, Radio 4, November 2008)

“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. 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, and 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 Splendors and Miseries of the Brain.” –Eric Kandel, University Professor and Kavli Professor, Director of Kavli Institute for Brain Sciences, Columbia University, and Senior Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute