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February 24th 2023

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Ambiguity as a Characteristic of the Architecture of the Human Mind – Semir Zeki

Variability, and the choice that it entails, is the bread and butter of evolution. It is therefore not surprising to find that variability is built into ordinary perception and is also a fundamental characteristic of great works of art. The reason for this is simple; it provides for choice and is therefore in line with great evolutionary principles. In works of art – whether derived from visual art or musical art – ambiguity is key. In ordinary perception it may act as a safeguard, protecting the individual from unsafe decisions. In art, it allows for the multiple interpretations of the same stimulus or work. The neurobiological definition of ambiguity is quite precise and different from the usual dictionary definitions. The latter usually define ambiguity as “uncertainty” or “confusing” or “of doubtful meaning”. The neurobiological definition is the exact opposite: it is certainty but certainty that occupies the conscious stage momentarily, before ceding its place to another momentary certainty. Hence, in neurobiological terms, there is no correct answer to an ambiguous stimulus, because all answers are correct momentarily. This is so regardless of whether one is viewing simple “ambiguous” figures such as the “rabbit-duck” bi-stable figure, the metastable paintings of Dalí or the finished masterpieces of Vermeer, Caravaggio and Tiziano which, in spite of their “finished” status, allow of multiple interpretations, none of which is the correct one because all are correct; it also applies to literary and musical works. I will give a more detailed description of the varieties of ambiguity and try to address, in outline, the question of how the conflict between them is resolved neurobiologically.

Ambiguity in Vision: Neural Patterns Emerge with Certainty in Perceiving Motion in the Riddoch Syndrome – Samuel Rasche

Injury to the primary visual cortex (V1) of the human brain can leave a person blind in part of their visual field. Yet, some individuals are capable of perceiving motion in their blind field, a phenomenon known as the Riddoch Syndrome. We have addressed the question of the conditions that need to be satisfied for human subjects blinded by lesions in V1 to be able to experience visual motion consciously. Previous work has shown that area V5 (MT) is active when such subjects are presented with visual motion, regardless of whether they are conscious of having seen them or not, although that activity was reportedly stronger during the conscious condition. It therefore became interesting to learn whether it is merely an increase in activity that enables the conscious experience of motion, or whether other factors may be involved. Specifically, we wanted to establish whether neural patterns emerge within V5 when Riddoch Syndrome patients experience visual motion consciously. We presented a patient with a moving checkerboard in their blind field that varied in speed, contrast, and spatial frequency. Results showed that spatial frequency of the stimulus dictated whether the patient perceived the stimulus. Specifically, the patient was more accurate and certain with low spatial frequency stimuli. We found that there was increased V5 activity when the patient accurately discriminated the motion direction. Moreover, using multivariate pattern analysis, we discovered distinct neural activity patterns in V5 when the patient was very certain (i.e. conscious) of perceiving motion. These patterns did not emerge when patients had low certainty (i.e. were unconscious). Additionally, in the instances of ambiguous motion perception – in which the patient falsely believes to accurately detect the motion direction (that is, performance is at chance but certainty is high) – additional detectable neural patterns emerged in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). We therefore conclude that neural patterns emerge in V5 when aware of visual motion. In addition, under ambiguous perceptual circumstances, the IFG plays a critical role in resolving visual ambiguity.

Perceptual Axioms: A Challenge to the Axioms of Euclidean Geometry – Zachary Hale

The completeness and consistency of mathematical knowledge has been a subject of critical importance to many, most notably David Hilbert, who aspired to a formal edifice of mathematics from which any conceived statement might be proven or disproven. With his so-called incompleteness theorems Kurt Gödel refuted the notion of a complete mathematics which rested on a consistent set of axioms. Lacking conventional discourse in this area is a consideration of the brain mechanisms which underlie, facilitate and generate mathematical knowledge. Our position claims that aside from the axioms of formal mathematical systems there exist other self-evident truths which are known to be true but cannot be proven as such. These are dictated by the organisation and structure of the brain. We present “optical illusions” as a case where the perception of a geometric stimulus is irreconcilable with the corresponding mathematical description, and note that even with knowledge of the mathematical description the perceptual experience is not subject to updating.

Godel vs Dirac: Incompleteness of the Most Successful Theory in Physics – Mikhail Filippov

For millennia, the physical world has been mathematics’ greatest muse. The ancient Greeks invented trigonometry to study the motion of the stars. 2,000 years later, Isaac Newton wanted to understand Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and attempted to find a rigorous way of thinking about infinitesimal change. This impulse birthed the field of calculus, which mathematics appropriated and improved — and today could hardly exist without.  Now mathematicians want to do the same for quantum field theory. Quantum Field Theory, created by Paul Dirac 100 years ago, may be the most successful scientific theory of all time, but there’s reason to think it’s missing something and many compete to find that missing piece. However, after many years of unsuccessful attempts to uncover or construct a complete description of physical reality both mathematicians and physicists are wondering whether it is even possible and what role does Godel’s incompleteness theorem play in their search?

Ambiguity and Philosophical Concepts: a Case of Conceptualising “Beauty” – Taylor Enoch

“Ambiguity” in a neurobiological sense means certainty of many equally plausible inter- pretations for a given stimulus; this is not limited to perceptual levels of experience, but applies equally to conceptual or cognitive levels. Many key philosophical concepts (e.g. Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Consciousness, the Absolute) are often characterised by an essential ambiguity. For example, in their foundational text titled The Foundations of Aesthetics (1922), Richards and Ogden enumerate sixteen ways by which the concept “Beauty” may be conceptualised. This suggests that such philosophical concepts are perhaps best conceptualised in terms of clusters of conditions, with one or more key necessary conditions, among many, as in Zeki’s own Notes Towards a Neurobiological Definition of Beauty (1999). Here, I argue that it is the concepts’ ambiguity that makes them philosophical in the first place, an argument that ultimately indexes philosophy to neurobiology as yet another product of our brain laws.

Release from the Brain Laws: the Zen Ideals of Art – Benito E. García

The path to Enlightenment requires the Subject to remove both natural inclinations and acquired habits to perceive reality anew. In the consideration of Zen practice, art is a privileged tool that enacts different modes of perception useful to clear the way towards Enlightenment. The result of this type of art, especially in plastic arts and poetry, are highly ambiguous works whose aim is to stimulate the participation of the beholder in the definition of the objects depicted. This ambiguous quality of Zen art is to emulate the nature of things prior to our perception, in other words, prior to our cultural and biological conditioning and previous experiences. Thus Zen ideals point towards a state of perception divorced from neurobiological laws, in concordance with many other spiritual traditions.

Let’s Talk About Sex: Fluidity and Ambiguity in the Natural World – Freddie Wilkinson

Contemporary debate regarding concepts of sex and gender have been one of the defining issues of the so-called “culture wars” that dominate much of tabloid discussion.  During these debates, the natural world is often invoked as to why only a binary view of sex and gender should be considered as the default as this is the immutable, “natural” order of things. This positively Victorian attitude couldn’t be further from the truth.  The fact is that – in the natural world – sex, sexual preference and what we construe as gender, are all wonderfully ambiguous.  As we are increasingly recognising, how sex and “gender” are expressed is, in many species, fluid and dynamic – both within species as a whole and within individuals over the course of their lives. As such, many animals will over the course of their lives find themselves being exposed to – and subsequently having to evaluate – various stimuli that may be ambiguous, whether regarding the recognition of members of the same species, mating displays or life history adaptations.  More so than we were initially prepared to realise, theirs is an ambiguous world.

Cross-Dressing and Androgyny in Medieval Hagiography – Fernando Baños

The case of Saint Eugenia is a paramount example of female cross-dressing in hagiography. Narratives like this are based on the religious symbolism of male monks’ dressing and haircut styles: renouncing femininity in principle is moving away from sin, since these female monks wanted to avoid tempting men and being contaminated with their gaze. Furthermore, disguising oneself as a man entailed the assimilation of becoming a gender considered superior and holier; in addition, it represents conversion. But these stories often get complicated and lead to paradoxes: the androgynous or ambiguous appearance of these women dressed as monks attracts women, who decide to take revenge when they are rejected. Eugenia’s case is fascinating, because several interesting components come together from a psychoanalytic point of view. In addition to cross-dressing and the attraction that another woman feels for her (masked homosexuality), there are subtle elements of exhibitionism and incest. Religiousness and libido are combined in a problematic and suggestive narrative mix.

Past events

November 2021


Asymmetric no more: the contributions of neuroesthetics to philosophies of aesthetics – Semir Zeki

Neuroesthetics is a largely experimental discipline which has had, until recently, an asymmetric relationship with the humanities, in that philosophies of aesthetics, art theory and art criticism have contributed profoundly to the framing of questions for experimental study in neuroesthetics, while the results obtained in the relatively new discipline of neuroesthetics have had little influence on the humanities. This asymmetric relationship is very likely a temporary one. The contributions that neuroesthetics has made to studies of aesthetics has been substantial; here, I emphasize one above all, namely the demonstration that there is at least one distinct cortical area located in the reward and pleasure centres of the frontal lobes, activity in which correlates with the judgment of beauty regardless of its source; moreover the intensity of activity in that area is related quantitatively to the declared intensity of the aesthetic experience. In thus showing that so “abstract” an experience can have, as a correlate, measurable activity in distinct parts of the brain, neuroesthetics has placed aesthetics studies firmly in the scientific domain. This brief description of course leaves out of account the many more specific contributions made by neuroesthetics to philosophies of aesthetics, which I will allude to in my talk.

Neuroesthetics and the Philosophy of Perception – Taylor Enoch

Throughout history, philosophical aesthetics has referred to a diverse set of factors in its attempts to account for the phenomena of aesthetic experiences. These include: ideals (Plato), ideas (Hegel and Schopenhauer), intuitions (Croce and Collingwood), institutions (Danto), inherent properties (Bell) and instantiated concepts (Sibley). These accounts feature the crucial assumption that the referents of perception ought to prefigure the act of perception itself, and therefore fail to prioritise the perceptual character of aesthetic experiences. Neuroesthetics corrects for this failure by prioritising perception with reference to our perceptual apparatus, the visual brain, and the means by which it generates appearances insofar as they appear to a perceiver. Call this principle the “primacy of perception”.

Neuroesthetics and Sexual Selection – Freddie Wilkinson

Neuroaesthetics research in humans has suggested that the determinants of biological beauty, and hence our perception of it, are genetically inherited; the consequence is that there is an element of uniformity in aesthetic experience across all individuals in all populations. Recently, these concepts have been introduced into a zoological context to create the field of bioaesthetics – studying the aesthetic faculty in animals. In turn, this is providing new insights in research on sexual selection. Darwin was very explicit about animal’s capacity for aesthetic judgement when he introduced the concept of sexual selection in The Descent of Man. Though the role of directional female choice in producing male ornaments has been subsequently supported mathematically, first by Fisher in the 1930s and then Lande-Kirkpatrick in the 1980s, an explicitly aesthetic explanation for mate choice has recently been revived. We can explore this through 2 groups of species, bowerbirds and pufferfish, which show the role that aesthetic judgement plays in mate choice. From this, we can gain insights into how conserved aesthetic concepts are, both within and across species.

The determination of beauty by neural patterns – Samuel E. Rasche

Although the properties of an object influence its aesthetic appeal, beauty does not lie only in the external world. In order to experience it, the brain must be involved. Many studies have demonstrated that there is activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) when we regard something as beautiful, regardless of its source. This raises the fundamental question of what determines whether the mOFC becomes active? I will discuss recent findings from our laboratory in which a pattern analysis of neural activity was used to decode the aesthetic appeal of faces. A different pattern of neural activity was present in both sensory areas and the mOFC when a face was experienced as beautiful. More specifically, it is only when these patterns emerge in “face perceptive” areas, there is co-activity with the mOFC, and the combined activity of these “face perceptive” areas and the mOFC leads to the experience of facial beauty. The patterns in the “face perceptive” areas may be the consequence of evolutionary forces favouring the selection of specific features that render a face beautiful and promote sexual selection.

The role of beauty in the exploration of the universe – Mikhail Filippov

Physics, arguably the most fundamental and abstract of the sciences, is inextricably linked to mathematics, the language it is expressed in. Central to physics is the concept of mathematical beauty. This aesthetic quality, whilst not easily definable, is not subject to any doubt to those who can appreciate it. The lack of a precise definition of beauty itself and particularly of mathematical beauty, and beauty itself being a subjective concept, may lead one to dismiss the subject as not worthy of further discussion. However, over centuries the perception of beauty allowed scientists to discover fundamental principles of our universe without conducting a single experiment. From Schrödinger’s equation to the theory of quarks and from the theory of black holes to Dirac’s equation: during their discovery authors claimed beauty as one of the crucial factors. But we know that there is also a danger for the theoretical physicist who gets caught up in the beauty of equations in trying to develop a unified theory of the Universe to become detached from the physical world. So, what is the role of beauty in the exploration of the Universe and how right was Dirac when he wrote that “a physical law must possess mathematical beauty”?

A Cognitive Approach to Literary Universals – Benito E. García

I will address, from a neurobiological perspective, the existence of cultural and literary universals. Taking into consideration recent formulations regarding ‘inherited brain concepts’, literary ‘universals’ will be juxtaposed with concepts which deeply ingrained in the functioning of our brain and therefore common to all cultures and all humans. I will illustrate this with several examples from love literature, which I will employ to illustrate the application of neurobiological principles to literary criticism in its pursuit of universals. The main purpose of this communication is to evidence the necessity of reuniting methods and theories in both natural and human sciences in order to bridge the cartesian split separating these two big fields in modern epistemology.