The Malevolence of Cancer

by Sherwin Nuland

The Malevolence of Cancer 

As early as the days of Hippocrates and even before, the ancient Greek 
physicians had a clear understanding of the ways in which a malignant 
growth so often pursues its inexorable determination to destroy life. 
They gave a very specific name to the hard swellings and ulcerations 
they so commonly saw in the breast or protruding from the rectum or vagina; 
they based that name on the evidence of their eyes and fingers. To distinguish them from ordinary swellings, which they called 
oncos, they used the term karkinos, or "crab," derived, interestingly enough, from an Indo-European 
root meaning "hard." Oma being a suffix referring to "tumor," karkinoma was used to designate a 
tumorous growth that was malignant. Centuries later, the Latin word for "crab," cancer, came into 
common usage. Oncos, meantime, came to be applied to tumors of any kind, which is why we call a 
cancer specialist an oncologist. 

Karkinoma was said to be due to the stagnation within the body of an excess of a hypothetical fluid 
called black bile, or melan cholos (frommelas, "black" and chole, "bile"). Since the Greeks did not 
dissect the human body, the cancers they saw were ulcerated malignancies of the breast or skin, and 
those of the rectum and female genital tract which had grown so large that they protruded through 
body openings. Accordingly, the fanciful explanation was supported by the common observation that 
cancer patients were indeed melancholy, and for obvious good reason. 

The origin of karkinos and karkinoma was based, as were so many Greek medical terms, on 
simple observation and touch. As Galen, the foremost interpreter and codifier of Greek medicine, put 
it in the second century a.d., the appearance of this creeping, infiltrating stony mass, ulcerated at its 
center, which he so often saw in the breasts of women, is "just like a crab's legs extending outward 
from every part of its body." And it is not only the legs that are digging farther and deeper into the 
flesh of its victim — the center, too, is eroding its way directly through her. 

The likeness is to an insidious, groping parasite, attached by sharp-clawed tentacles to the 
decaying surface of its imperiled prey. The clawing extremities ceaselessly extend the periphery of 
their malign grip, while the loathsome core of the burrowing beast eats silently away at life, able to 
digest only what it has first decomposed. The process is noiseless; it has no recognizable instant of 
beginning and it ends only when the despoiler has consumed the final remnants of its host's vital 

Until after the middle of the nineteenth century, cancer was thought to do its killing by stealth. Its 
lurking force lay under the cover of hushed darkness, its first sting felt only when murderous 
infiltration had strangled too much normal tissue to restore the overwhelmed defenses of its host. The 
perpetrator regurgitated as malignant gangrene the life it had noiselessly chewed up. 

We know better now, because we have come to recognize a different personality when our old 
enemy is seen through the microscope of contemporary science. Cancer, far from being a clandestine 
foe, is in fact berserk with the malicious exuberance of killing. The disease pursues a continuous, 
uninhibited, circumferential, barn-burning expedition of destructiveness, in which it heeds no rules, 
follows no commands, and explodes all resistance in a homicidal riot of devastation. Its cells behave 
like the members of a barbarian horde run amok — leaderless and undirected, but with a single- 
minded purpose: to plunder everything within reach. This is what medical scientists mean when they 
use the word autonomy. The form and rate of multiplication of the murderous cells violate every rule 
of decorum within the living animal whose vital nutrients nourish it only to be destroyed by this 
enlarging atrocity that has sprung newborn from its own protoplasm. In this sense, cancer is not a 
parasite. Galen was wrong to call it praeter naturam, "outside of nature." Its first cells are the 
bastard offspring of unsuspecting parents who ultimately reject them because they are ugly, deformed, 
and unruly. In the community of living tissues, the uncontrolled mob of misfits that is cancer behaves 
like a gang of perpetually wilding adolescents. They are the juvenile delinquents of cellular society. 

Cancer is best viewed as a disease of altered maturation; it is the result of a multistage process of 
growth and development having gone awry. Under ordinary conditions, normal cells are constantly 
being replenished as they die, not only by the reproduction of their younger survivors but also by an 
actively reproducing group of progenitors called stem cells. Stem cells are very immature forms with 
enormous potential to create new tissue. In order for the progeny of the stem cells to progress to 
normal maturity, they must pass through a series of steps. As they get closer to full maturity, they lose 
their ability to proliferate rapidly in proportion to the increase in their ability to perform the functions 
for which they are intended as grown-ups. A fully mature cell of the intestinal lining, for example, 
absorbs nutriments from the cavity of the gut a lot more efficiently than it reproduces; a fully mature 
thyroid cell is at its best when it secretes hormone, but it is much less inclined to reproduce than it 
was while younger. The analogy with the social behavior of a whole organism, like us, is 

A tumor cell is one that has somewhere along the way been stopped in its capacity to differentiate, 
which is the term used by scientists for the process by which cells go through the steps that enable 
them to reach healthy adulthood. The clump of immature abnormal cells that results from the blocking 
of differentiation is called a neoplasm, derived from the Greek word for a new growth or formation. 
In modern times, the word neoplasm is used synonymously with tumor. Those tumors whose cells 
have been blocked closest to the attainment of the mature state are the least dangerous and are 
therefore called benign. A benign tumor has retained relatively little of its potential for uncontrolled 
reproduction — it is well differentiated; under the microscope, it looks a lot like the adult it was close 
to becoming. It grows slowly, does not invade surrounding tissues or travel to other parts of the body, 

is often surrounded by a distinct fibrous capsule, and almost never has the capacity to kill its host. 

A malignant neoplasm — what we call cancer — is a different creature entirely. Some influence or 
combination of influences, whether genetic, environmental, or otherwise, has acted as the triggering 
mechanism to interfere so early in the pathway of maturation that the progress of the cells has been 
stopped at a stage when they still have an infinite capacity to reproduce. Normal stem cells keep 
trying to produce normal offspring, but their development continues to be arrested. They do not attain 
a sufficient level of adulthood to do the work they were meant for or to look more than just a little 
like the grown-up forms they were intended to be. Cancer cells are fixed at an age where they are still 
too young to have learned the rules of the society in which they live. As with so many immature 
individuals of all living kinds, everything they do is excessive and uncoordinated with the needs or 
constraints of their neighbors. 

Being not completely grown-up, a cancer cell does not engage in some of the more complicated 
metabolic activities of mature nonmalignant tissue. A cancer cell of the intestine, for example, doesn't 
help out in digestion as its adult counterpart does; a cancer cell of the lung is uninvolved in the 
process of respiration; the same is true of almost all other malignancies. Malignant cells concentrate 
their energies on reproduction rather than in partaking in the missions a tissue must carry out in order 
for the life of the organism to go on. The bastard offspring of their hyperactive (albeit asexual) 
"fornicating" are without the resources to do anything but cause trouble and burden the hardworking 
community around them. Like their progenitors, they are reproductive but not productive. As 
individuals, they victimize a sedate, conforming society. 

Cancer cells do not even have the decency to die when they should. All nature recognizes that death 
is the final step in the process of normal maturation. Malignant cells don't reach that point — their 
longevity is not finite. What is true of Dr. Hayflick's fibroblasts does not apply to the cellular 
population of a malignant growth. Cancer cells cultivated in the laboratory exhibit an unlimited 
capacity to grow and generate new tumors. In the words of my research colleagues, they are 
"immortalized." The combination of delayed death and uncontrolled birth are malignancy's greatest 
violations of the natural order of things. These two factors in combination are the main reasons a 
cancer, unlike normal tissue, continues to enlarge throughout its lifetime. 

Knowing no rules, cancer is amoral. Knowing no purpose other than to destroy life, cancer is 
immoral. A cluster of malignant cells is a disorganized autonomous mob of maladjusted adolescents, 
raging against the society from which it sprang. It is a street gang intent on mayhem If we cannot help 
its members grow up, anything we can do to arrest them, remove them from our midst, or induce their 
demise — anything that accomplishes one of those aims — is praiseworthy. 

There comes a point at which home turf is not enoughs — offshoots of the gang take wing, invade 
other communities, and, emboldened by their unresisted depredations, wreak havoc on the entire 
commonwealth of the body. But in the end, there is no victory for cancer. When it kills its victim, it 
kills itself. A cancer is born with a death wish. 

Cancer is, in every possible sense, a nonconformist. But, unlike some nonconformist individuals 
about whom there is much to admire, the nonconforming malignant cell has not a single redeeming 
feature. It does everything it can not only to disassociate itself from but even to destroy the community 
of cells that has given it life. As though to make certain that it is not confused with the conformist 
adult members of its original family, the cancer cell retains an immature and different appearance and 
even shape. This characteristic of malignant growth is called anaplasia, from the Greek term meaning 
"without form." The anaplastic cell gives birth to anaplastic offspring. 

But try as it may, only an unusual cancer is composed of cells that have changed their appearance 

completely enough to become unrecognizable as members of their own original tribe. Except in 
extreme cases, a careful look down the barrel of a microscope at a bit of the diseased tissue will 
suffice to reveal its ancestral lineage. Thus, a bowel cancer can be identified as what it is because it 
still has some characteristic features that betray its intestinal origin. Even far away from home, as 
when the bloodstream has carried its cells to the liver, the cancer's face, almost no matter the degree 
of anaplasia, will usually give it away. Even cancer, that remorseless renegade that ran away to join 
the biological equivalent of Murder, Inc., retains some dimly recognizable traits of its old family and 
its old obligations. 

The twin characteristics of autonomy and anaplasia define the modern understanding of cancer. 
Whether they are to be thought of as "ugly, deformed, and unruly" or more academically as 
"anaplastic" and "autonomous," the cells of a cancer are wicked in ways far beyond what is implied 
by the scientific connotation of the word malignant. Malevolent, in fact, says it better, because it 
bears the implication of an element of ill will. 

The deformity and ugliness of the individual cancer cell are most manifest in the irregularities of 
its distorted shape. Whereas the appearance of a normal cell in normal tissue differs hardly at all 
from that of its normal neighbors, the forms and dimensions of the individuals in a cancer's cellular 
population are usually neither uniform nor orderly. They may bulge, flatten, elongate, round 
themselves out, or in some other way demonstrate that each is created as though with a mind of its 
own — it is an independent agent. Cancer is a state in which a breakdown has occurred in the 
communication and mutual interdependence between cells. That sequence of events noted above has 
taken place, in which the genetic characteristics of the malignant cell become altered, and everything 
else about the disease follows from that fact. Some of the environmental, lifestyle, and other causes of 
the alterations are known, some are being studied, and some are no doubt still unsuspected. 

Though chaotic in appearance and inconsistent in size, the community of malignant cells is not 
necessarily always anarchic. In a few forms of cancer, in fact, all individuals are found to choose a 
specific uniform shape that suits a shared element in their willfulness. Such malignancies exist as 
though to demonstrate an obstinate refusal to conform to the accustomed disharmony expected of them; 
their cells reproduce myriads of virtually identical selves, like so many millions upon millions of 
little poisonous apples, boringly similar to one another but quite different from their tissue of origin. 
Even the predictability of malignancy's unpredictability is unpredictable. 

The central structure of the cancer cell, its nucleus, is larger and more prominent than that of mature 
relatives and is often as misshapen as the cell itself. Its dominance over the protoplasm surrounding it 
is intensified by the enhanced avidity with which it takes up standard laboratory stains, a 
characteristic that gives it a darkened, ominous look. The evil-eye nucleus reveals its disordered 
independence in yet another way: Instead of dividing neatly into two symmetrical halves during the 
process of reproduction known as mitosis, the chromosomes (the components of the nucleus that carry 
the DNA) align themselves in bizarre patterns, attempting with varying degrees of success to multiply, 
figuratively head over heels, without any element of precision or accountability. The rate of mitosis 
of some cancers is so rapid that a quick look through the microscope will catch many times the 
number of cells in the act of trying to reproduce as are found in mature normal tissue, and every one 
of them seems to be doing it in its own haphazard way. Small wonder that the surviving offspring are 
ill-suited to their surroundings in the ordered, consistent tissue of the organs of which they were 
originally meant to be a part. So pugnaciously "other" are the new masses of cells, in fact, that they 
not only invade but also push their law-abiding grown-up neighbors out of the way as they infiltrate 
and preempt surrounding territory. 

In a word, cancer is asocial. Having escaped the constraints that govern nonmalignant cells, the 
newly formed tissues pursue uncontrolled and domineering relationships with their host organs and 
cannot be made to restrict their encroaching margins to the foci that gave them birth. Unrestrained and 
patternless growth enables a cancer to force its way into nearby vital structures to engulf them, 
prevent their functioning, and choke off their vitality. By this means, and by destroying the organs 
from whose stem cells they are made, the masses of cancer cells kill the gradually sickening person 
after feasting on the nutrients that were to have sustained him 

Although it begins as a microscopic phenomenon, the process of malignant growth, once properly 
established, inevitably continues until it can be seen with the naked eye or felt with the exploring 
hand. For a while, the growing mass may remain too small or confined to produce symptoms, but in 
time, the cancer's victim will sense that something untoward is happening to him. By that point, the 
malignancy may have grown so large that it is beyond cure. Particularly in certain solid organs, a 
cancer may reach considerable size before it makes its host aware of its presence. It was for this 
reason, of course, that the disease achieved its legendary reputation as a noiseless killer. 

A kidney, for example, may be found to harbor a perfectly huge growth when it first reveals its 
advanced state of disease by spilling visible blood into the urine or causing a dull ache in the flank. If 
an operation is done at that point, the surgeon's efforts will be defeated by the wide extent of 
involvement of surrounding tissues. The otherwise-symmetrical brown smoothness of the organ will 
be found to have been eaten away in one large area by an ugly, lobulated protrusion of coarse gray 
hardness that has forced its way through to the surface, invaded the adjacent fat, and drawn all nearby 
tissues into it, the misbegotten whole forming one great puckered grotesquerie of bunched-up 
aggression. Of all the diseases they treat, cancer is the one that surgeons have given the specific 
designation of "The Enemy." 

The visible structure and invasiveness of a cancer are only two of its many forms of unruliness. 
One of the most duplicitous of malignancy's misbehaviors is the way in which it seems to elude the 
defenses ordinarily mounted by the body against tissue it perceives as not belonging to it. 
Theoretically at least, cells that have become cancerous should be detectable as foreign or "other" by 
an intact immune system and then killed, much as is a virus. This actually does happen to an extent; 
some researchers believe that our tissues are continually making cancers, which are just as 
continually being destroyed by this kind of mechanism. Clinical malignancies would then develop in 
those rare instances when the surveillance system fails. An example of support for such a thesis is to 
be found in the prevalence in people with AIDS of tumors such as lymphoma and Kaposi's sarcoma. 
Overall, the incidence of malignancies in immunocompromised individuals is some two hundred 
times that found in the general population, and for Kaposi's the figure is more than twice what it is for 
the average tumor. One of the most promising fields of today's biomedical research is the study of 
tumor immunity with a view toward strengthening the body's responses to the antigens that cancers 
may produce. Although there have been some promising results, the target cells continue, for the most 
part, to outwit the scientists. 

Normal cells require a complex mixture of nutrients and growth factors in order to continue 
functioning and retain viability. Throughout all tissues of the body, they are bathed in a life-giving 
nutrient soup called extracellular fluid, which is constantly being restored and cleansed by 
exchanging substances with circulating blood. The blood's plasma, in fact, amounts to one-fifth of the 
body's extracellular fluid; most of the other four-fifths lies between the cells, and is called 
interstitial. The interstitial fluid accounts for approximately 15 percent of body weight; if you weigh 
150 pounds, your tissues are soaking in 22 pints of the salty stuff. The nineteenth-century French 

physiologist Claude Bernard introduced the term milieu interieur to name and describe the function 
of this internal environment in which cells live within us. It is as though the earliest groups of 
prehistoric cells, when they first began to form complex organisms in the marine depths from which 
they drew sustenance, brought some of the sea into and around themselves so that they might continue 
to be nourished by it. Among the unique features of malignant tissues is their reduced dependence on 
the nutritional and growth factors in the extracellular fluid. Their lessened need for sustenance from 
the surroundings enables them to grow and invade even those areas beyond optimal supply lines. 

No matter that each cellular unit can get along with less, the helter-skelter increase in population 
soon accumulates so many malignant cells that the requirements of the aggregate tend to outstrip 
whatever supplies are available. As a result, a total tumor mass will often develop an increased 
demand for nutrition, even though each individual within it may require less than a normal amount of 
it. If growth is rapid enough, blood supply after a time will be insufficient to restore used-up 
nutrients, especially because new vessels usually do not appear rapidly enough to keep pace with the 
needs of the whole expanding tumor. 

The result is that a portion of an enlarging tumor may die, literally of malnutrition and oxygen lack. 
It is for this reason that cancers tend to ulcerate and bleed, sometimes producing thick, slimy deposits 
of necrotic tissue (from the Greek nekrosis, meaning "becoming dead") within their centers or at the 
periphery. Until mastectomy became a common operation less than a hundred years ago, the most 
dreaded complication of breast malignancy was not death but the fetid running sores it produced as a 
hapless woman's chest wall was digested away. This is precisely why the ancients referred to 
karkinoma as the "stinking death." 

In the late eighteenth century, Giovanni Morgagni, the author of a landmark text of pathological 
anatomy, said of the cancer he saw in his patients and at their autopsies that it was "a very filthy 
disease." Even in relatively recent times, when much more was known, malignant tumors continued to 
be viewed as repugnant sources of self-loathing and decay, a humiliating abomination to be concealed 
behind euphemisms and lies. Many are the stories of women with breast cancer who withdrew from 
friends, secluded themselves at home, and lived their final months as recluses, sometimes even from 
their own families. As recently as the period of my training, just over thirty years ago, I saw a few 
such women who had finally been prevailed upon to come to the clinic because their situations had 
become intolerable. Of the several reasons we still hesitate to utter the word cancer in the presence 
of a patient or family assaulted by it, the residual heritage of its odious connections is the one most 
difficult for our generation to expunge. 

Not enough that a rapidly growing cancer may so infiltrate a solid organ like the liver or kidney 
that insufficient tissue remains to perform the organ's functions effectively; not enough that it may 
obstruct a hollow structure like the intestinal tract and make adequate nourishment impossible; not 
enough that even a small mass of it can destroy a vital center without which life functions cannot go 
on, as some brain tumors do; not enough that it erodes small blood vessels or ulcerates sufficiently to 
result gradually in severe anemia, as it often does in the stomach or colon; not enough that its very 
bulk sometimes interferes with the drainage of bacteria-laden effluents and induces pneumonia and 
respiratory insufficiency, which are common causes of death in lung cancer; not enough that a 
malignancy has several ways by which it can starve its host into malnutrition — a cancer has still other 
ways to kill. Those just mentioned refer, after all, only to potentially lethal consequences of 
encroachment by the primary tumor itself, without its ever having left the organ where it first arose. 
These are the kinds of damage cancer does in its own neighborhood. But it has an additional way of 
killing that takes it out of the category of localized disease and permits it to attack a wide assortment 

of tissues far from its origin. That mechanism has been given the name metastasis. 

Meta is a Greek preposition meaning "beyond" or "away from," and stasis connotes "position" or 
"placing." Introduced as early as the Hippocratic writings to indicate a change away from one form of 
fever to another, metastasis later came to be applied specifically to migration of bits of tumor. In 
modern times, this one word, metastasis, has come to articulate the defining feature of malignancy — 
cancer is a neoplasm that has the potential to go beyond its home and travel to some other place. A 
metastasis is, in effect, a transplant of a sample of the primary tumor to another structure or even a 
distant part of the body. 

Cancer's ability to metastasize is both its hallmark and its most menacing characteristic. If a 
malignant tumor did not have the ability to travel, surgeons would be able to cure all but those that 
involve vital structures, which cannot be removed without compromising life. In order to travel, the 
tumor must erode through the wall of a blood vessel or lymph channel, and then some of its cells must 
become detached and pass into the flowing stream. Either individually or clumped into an embolus, 
the cells are then carried to some other tissue, where they implant and grow. Determined by the route 
of blood or lymph flow as well as other still-unclear factors, various cancers have a predilection to 
be deposited in certain specific organs. For example, a breast cancer is most likely to metastasize to 
bone marrow, lungs, liver, and, of course, the lymph nodes in the armpit, or axilla. A cancer of the 
prostate commonly travels to bone. Bones, in fact, along with the liver and kidney, are the most 
common sites for metastatic deposits, regardless of the malignancy's organ of origin. 

In order to take root in a distant location, tumor cells need to be hardy enough to resist destruction 
while on their journey. The simple mechanical dangers of traveling through the jolting circulation 
complicate the possibility of being killed by the host's immune system during the course of the 
passage. If they survive the voyage, the cells must then establish a new home and be provided a 
reliable source of nutrition. This means a priori that the transplanted bit of cancer cannot create a 
viable colony on the newly reached distant shore unless it is capable of stimulating the growth of tiny 
new blood vessels to supply its needs. 

So difficult is it to satisfy all of these requirements that very few of the migrating cells ever do 
manage to colonize some far-flung site. When tumor cells are experimentally injected into mice, only 
one-tenth of 1 percent survive beyond twenty- four hours; it is estimated that only one of each 100,000 
cells entering the bloodstream lives to reach another organ, and a far smaller proportion successfully 
implant themselves. Were it not for obstacles such as these, massive numbers of metastases would 
appear as soon as a cancer becomes sufficiently large to shed many cells into the circulation. 

By the twin forces of local invasion and distant metastasis, a cancer gradually interferes with the 
functioning of the various tissues of the body. Tubular organs are obstructed, metabolic processes are 
inhibited, blood vessels are eroded sufficiently to cause minor and sometimes major bleeding, vital 
centers are destroyed, and delicate biochemical balances are deranged. In time, a point is reached at 
which life can no longer be sustained. 

In addition, there are less direct ways for cancer to take its toll on those in whom its growth is 
unchecked, and they are usually the result of the debilitation, poor nutrition, and susceptibility to 
infection that come with the malignant process. Nutritional depletion is so common that a term has 
been devised to designate its effects: cancer cachexia. Cachexia is derived from two Greek words 
meaning "bad condition," which is exactly the situation in which advanced cancer patients find 
themselves. It is characterized by weakness, poor appetite, alterations in metabolism, and wasting of 
muscle and other tissues. 

Actually, cancer cachexia is sometimes present even in people whose disease is still localized and 

relatively small, so it is clear that factors account for it other than a tumor's gobbling up of its host's 
resources. Though a tumor is capable of depriving its host of some essential nutrients, the concept of 
parasitizing may be, in fact, a simplistic way of looking at far more complicated causes of its ability 
to deplete resources. Changes in taste perception, for example, and local tumor effects such as 
obstruction and swallowing problems sometimes contribute to inadequate intake, as do chemotherapy 
and X-ray treatment. Numerous studies of people with malignancies reveal various kinds of 
abnormalities in the utilization of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, the causes of which are uncertain. 
Some tumors even seem capable of increasing a patient's expenditure of energy, thereby contributing 
to the inability to maintain weight. To add to the problem, certain malignancies and even some of the 
host's own white blood cells (monocytes) have been shown to release a substance appropriately 
given the name cachectin, which decreases appetite by direct action on the brain's feeding center. 
Cachectin is not the only such agent. It is likely that tumors of all sorts are capable of secreting 
various hormonelike substances which produce generalized effects on nutrition, immunity, and other 
vital functions that until recently were attributed to the parasitizing effects of the growth itself. 

Malnutrition causes problems far beyond weight loss and exhaustion. The healthy body adapts to 
ordinary starvation by using fats as its main energy source, but this process is not effective in cancer, 
with the result that protein must be utilized. Not only does this and the lessened food intake cause 
muscle wasting; the decreased protein levels contribute to the dysfunction of organs and enzyme 
systems, and may significantly affect the immune response. There is evidence that one of the 
substances released by tumor cells further depresses immunity. Although this may, at least 
theoretically, enhance cancer growth, that untoward effect seems much less important than the fact that 
depressed immunocompetence, especially when magnified by chemotherapy and radiation, increases 
susceptibility to infection. 

Pneumonia and abscesses, along with urinary and other infections, are frequently the immediate 
causes of death of cancer patients, and sepsis is their common terminal event. The profound weakness 
of severe cachexia does not permit effective coughing and respiration, increasing the chances of 
pneumonia and the inhalation of vomitus. The final hours are sometimes accompanied by those deep, 
gurgling respirations that are one of the forms of the death rattle, quite distinct from the agonal bark of 
a James McCarty. 

Near the end, a decreased volume of circulating blood and extracellular fluid not infrequently leads 
to a gradual decrease in blood pressure. Even if this does not proceed to shock, it may cause organs 
such as the liver or kidney to fail because of chronic lack of sufficient nutrients and oxygen, although 
they are not directly involved with tumor. Since many people with cancer are in an older age group, 
the various forms of depletion often induce stroke, myocardial infarction, or heart failure. Of course, 
the presence of a generalized disease of metabolism, like diabetes, complicates the problems 

Thus far, only those cancers have been mentioned that begin as tumors originally localized to a 
specific organ or tissue. A smaller group of malignant diseases have a more generalized distribution 
from the very beginning, or arise in multiple sites of a particular kind of tissue, specifically the blood 
and lymph systems. Leukemia, for example, is a cancer of the tissues responsible for the production of 
white blood cells, and lymphoma is a malignancy of lymph glands and similar structures. Patients 
with leukemia and lymphoma are particularly prone to infection, and it is a leading cause of death in 
those malignancies. One of the common forms of lymphoma is Hodgkin's disease. 

I cannot mention Hodgkin's disease without calling attention to a remarkable accomplishment that 
is in many ways exemplary of the biomedical achievements of the last third of the twentieth century 

Thirty years ago, virtually every patient with Hodgkin's disease died of it, unless claimed by 
something else in the several-year interval between diagnosis and the terminal phase. Since then, 
improved understanding of the way in which the disease distributes itself in the lymph glands, and its 
responsiveness to appropriate programs of chemotherapy and supervoltage X-ray, have resulted in 
five-year disease-free survival of approximately 70 percent, which is as high as 95 percent for 
patients whose disease is discovered when its extent is still limited; recurrence rates after this period 
are low and decrease with each year. Not only Hodgkin's disease but lymphomas in general are now 
among the most curable of all cancers. 

The changed outlook for people with lymphoma is only one example of extraordinary progress in 
treating cancer. Another is childhood leukemia. Four out of five children with this disease have a 
form of it called acute lymphoblastic leukemia, previously fatal in every case; today, the five-year 
rate of continuous remission of acute lymphoblastic leukemia is 60 percent, and most of these 
youngsters will be cured. Although there have thus far been only a few other success stories of the 
sheer magnitude of these two, the general trend in the campaign against cancer is favorable enough to 
justify cautious optimism. Basic research, new ways of interpreting the clinical phenomena of 
disease, innovative applications of pharmacology and the physical sciences, and the willingness of 
informed patients to enroll in large-scale trials of promising treatments are among the reasons for the 
vast changes over the past few decades. 

In the year I was born, 1930, only one in five people diagnosed with cancer survived five years. 
By the 1940s, the figure was one in four. The effect of modern biomedicine's research capacity began 
to make itself felt in the 1960s, when the proportion of survivors reached one in three. At the present 
time, 40 percent of all cancer patients are alive five years after diagnosis; making proper statistical 
allowances for those who die of some unrelated cause, such as heart disease or stroke, 50 percent 
survive at least that long. It is well known that those who reach the five-year milestone free of disease 
face greatly decreased odds of eventual recurrence of their malignancy. Virtually all of the progress 
has been made possible by a combination of earlier diagnosis and the improved treatment resulting 
from the factors listed in the preceding paragraph. Improved treatment and the possibility of success 
of the constantly appearing innovative approaches to advanced disease bring hope to today's cancer 
patient. Paradoxically, and sometimes tragically, that kind of hope is the very thing that has led to 
some of the most error-fraught dilemmas that patients and their doctors are compelled to face today. 

My clinical career encompasses a period during which a realistic expectation first began to be felt 
in the scientific community that malignant disease would prove amenable to treatment based on an 
understanding of cellular biology rather than the ages-old oversimplifications of surgery. As more 
was learned about the cancer cell, new and increasingly effective ways were developed to combat its 
unchecked ravages. With the optimism born of therapeutic successes came a determined cockiness 
that sometimes goes beyond reason; it finds expression in the philosophy that treatment must be 
pursued until futility can be proven, or at least proven to the satisfaction of the physician. 

The boundaries of medical futility, however, have never been clear, and it may be too much to 
expect that they ever will be. It is perhaps for this reason that there has arisen the conviction among 
doctors — more than a mere conviction, it is nowadays felt by many to be a responsibility — that 
should error occur in the treatment of a patient, it must always be on the side of doing more rather 
than less. Doing more is likely to serve the doctor's needs rather than the patient's. The very success 
of his esoteric therapeutics too often leads the physician to believe he can do what is beyond his 
doing and save those who, left to their own unhindered judgment, would choose not to be subjected to 
his saving. 

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The Science of Art

The Science of Art
A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience

V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein

We present a hypothesis of human artistic experience and the neural mechanisms that mediate it. Any supposition of art (or, certainly, any aspect of human nature) has to ideally have three mechanism. (a) The logic of art: whether there are universal rules or principles; (b) The evolutionary rationale: why did these rules evolve and why have they got the form that they do; (c) What is the human brain circuitry involved? Our paper begins with a quest for artistic universals and proposes a list of ‘Eight laws of artistic experience’ – a collection of heuristics that artists either consciously or unconsciously position to optimally titillate the visual locations of the brain. One of these doctrines may be a psychological phenomenon called the peak shift effect: If a rat is rewarded for discriminating a rectangle from a square, it will respond even more vigorously to a rectangle that is longer and skinnier that the prototype.We suggest that this principle explains not only caricatures, but many other aspects of art. Example: An evocative sketch of a female nude may be one which selectively accentuates those feminine form-attributes that allow one to discriminate it from a male figure; a Boucher, a Van Gogh, or a Monet may be a caricature in ‘colour space’ rather than form space. Even abstract art may employ ‘supernormal’ stimuli to excite form areas in the brain more strongly than natural stimuli. Second, we suggest that grouping is a very basic principle. The different extrastriate visual areas may have evolved specifically to extract correlations in different domains (e.g. form, depth, colour), and discovering and linking multiple features (‘grouping’) into unitary clusters – objects – is facilitated and reinforced by direct connections from these areas to limbic structures. In general, when object-like entities are partially discerned at any stage in the visual hierarchy, messages are sent back to earlier stages to alert them to certain locations or features in order to look for additional evidence for the object (and these processes may be facilitated by direct limbic activation). Finally, given constraints on allocation of attentional resources, art is most appealing if it produces heightened activity in a single dimension (e.g. through the peak shift principle or through grouping) rather than redundant activation of multiple modules. This idea may help explain the effectiveness of outline drawings and sketches, the savant syndrome in autists, and the sudden emergence of artistic talent in fronto-temporal dementia. In addition to these three basic principles we propose five others, constituting a total of ‘eight laws of aesthetic experience’ (analogous to the Buddha’s eightfold path to wisdom).
‘Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird?’
Pablo Picasso


If a Martian ethologist were to land on earth and watch us humans, he would be puzzled by many aspects of human nature, but surely art—our propensity to create and enjoy paintings and sculpture—would be among the most puzzling. What biological function could this mysterious behaviour possible serve? Cultural factors undoubtedly influence what kind of art a person enjoys — be it a Rembrandt, a Monet, a Rodin, a Picasso, a Chola bronze, a Moghul miniature, or a Ming Dynasty vase. But, even if beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder, might there be some sort of universal rule or ‘deep structure’, underlying all artistic experience? The details may vary from culture to culture and may be influenced by the way one is raised, but it doesn’t follow that there is no genetically specified mechanism — a common denominator underlying all types of art. We recently proposed such a mechanism (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998), and we now present a more detailed version of this hypothesis and suggest some new experiments. These may be the very first experiments ever designed to empirically investigate the question of how the brain responds to art. Many consider art to be a celebration of human individuality and to that extent it may seem like a travesty to even search for universals. Indeed theories of visual art range from curious anarchist views (or even worse, ‘anything goes’) to the idea that art provides the only antidote to the absurdity or our existence—the only escape, perhaps, from this vale of tears (Penrose, 1973). Our approach to art, in this essay, will be to begin by simply making a list of all those attributes of pictures that people generally find attractive. Notwithstanding the Dada movement, we can then ask, Is there a common pattern underlying these apparently dissimilar attributes, and if so, why is this pattern pleasing to us? What is the survival value, if any, of art? But first let us clear up some common misconceptions about visual art. When the English colonizers first arrived in India they were offended by the erotic nudes in temples; the hips and breasts were grossly hypertrophied, the waist abnormally thin (Plate 1).1 Similarly the Rajasthani and Moghul miniature paintings were considered primitive because they lacked perspective. In making this judgement they were, of course, unconsciously comparing Indian art with the ideals of Western representational art—Renaissance art in particular. What is odd about this criticism though, is that it misses the whole point of art. The purpose of art, surely, is not merely to depict or represent reality—for that can be accomplished very easily with a camera—but to enhance, transcend, or indeed even to distort reality. The word ‘rasa’ appears repeatedly in Indian art manuals and has no literal translation, but roughly it means ‘the very essence of.’ So a sculptor in India, for example, might try to portray the rasa of childhood (Plate 2), or the rasa of romantic love, or sexual ecstasy (Plate 3), or feminine grace and perfection (Plate 4). The artist is striving, in these images, to strongly evoke a direct emotional response of a specific kind. In Western art, the ‘discovery’ of non-representational abstract art had to await the arrival of Picasso.

His nudes were also grotesquely distorted — both eyes on one side of the face for example. Yet when Picasso did it, the Western art critics heralded his attempts to ‘transcend perspective’ as a profound new discovery—even though both Indian and African art had anticipated this style by several centuries! We suggest in this essay that artists either consciously or unconsciously deploy certain rules or principles (we call them laws) to titillate the visual areas of the brain. Some of these laws, we believe, are original to this article—at least in the context of art. Others (such as grouping) have been known for a long time and can be found in any art manual, but the question of why a given principle should be effective is rarely raised: the principle is usually just presented as a rule-of-thumb. In this essay we try to present all (or many) of these laws together and provide a coherent biological framework, for only when they are all considered simultaneously and viewed in a biological context do they begin to make sense. There are in fact three cornerstones to our argument. First, what might loosely be called the ‘internal logic’ of the phenomenon (what we call ‘laws’ in this essay). Second, the evolutionary rationale: the question of why the laws evolved and have that particular form (e.g. grouping facilitates object perception). And third, the neurophysiology (e.g. grouping occurs in extrastriate areas and is facilitated by synchronization of spikes and direct limbic activation).

All three of these need to be in place—and must inform each other—before we can claim to have ‘understood’ any complex manifestation of human nature — such as art. Many earlier discussions of art, in our view, suffer from the shortcoming that they view the problem from just one or two of these perspectives. We should clarify at the outset that many aspects of art will not be discussed in this article — such as matters concerning style. Indeed it may well be that much of art really has to do with aggressive marketing and hype, and this inevitably introduces an element of arbitrariness that complicates the picture enormously. Furthermore the artistic ‘universals’ that we shall consider are not going to provide an instant formula for distinguishing ‘tacky’ or ‘tourist’ art, that hangs in the lobbies of business executives, from the genuine thing—even though a really gifted artist could do so instantly —and until we can do that we can hardly claim to have ‘understood’ art. Yet despite these reservations, we do believe that there is at least a component to art—however small—that IS lawful and can be analysed in accordance with the principles or laws outlined here. Although we initially proposed these ‘laws’ in a playful spirit, we were persuaded that there is enough merit in them to warrant publication in a philosophical journal. If the essay succeeds in stimulating a dialogue between artists, visual physiologists and evolutionary biologists, it will have adequately served its purpose.

The Essence of Art and the Peak Shift Principle

Hindu artists often speak of conveying the rasa, or ‘essence’, of something in order to evoke a specific mood in the observer. But what exactly does this mean? What does it mean to ‘capture the very essence’ of something in order to ‘evoke a direct emotional response’? The answer to these questions, it turns out, provides the key to understanding what art really is. Indeed, as we shall see, what the artist tries to do (either consciously or unconsciously) is to not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it in order to more powerfully activate the same neural mechanisms that would be activated by the original object. As the physiologist Zeki (1998) has eloquently noted, it may not be a coincidence that the ability of the artist to abstract the ‘essential features’ of an image and discard redundant information is essentially identical to what the visual areas themselves have evolved to do.

Consider the peak shift effect — a well-known principle in animal discrimination learning. If a rat is taught to discriminate a square from a rectangle (of say, 3:2 aspect ratio) and rewarded for the rectangle, it will soon learn to respond more frequently to the rectangle. Paradoxically, however, the rat’s response to a rectangle that is even longer and skinnier (say, of aspect ratio 4:1) is even greater than it was to the original prototype on which it was trained. This curious result implies that what the rat is learning is not a prototype but a rule, i.e. rectangularity. We shall argue in this essay that this principle holds the key for understanding the evocativeness of much of visual art. We are not arguing that it’s the only principle, but that it is likely to be one of a small subset of such principles underlying artistic experience. How does this principle—the peak shift effect—relate to human pattern recognition and aesthetic preference? Consider the way in which a skilled cartoonist produces a caricature of a famous face, say Nixon’s. What he does (unconsciously) is to take the average of all faces, subtract the average from Nixon’s face (to get the difference between Nixon’s face and all others) and then amplify the differences to produce a caricature. The final result, of course, is a drawing that is even more Nixon-like than the original. The artist has amplified the differences that characterize Nixon’s face in the same way that an even skinnier rectangle is an amplified version of the original prototype that the rat is exposed to. This leads us to our first aphorism: ‘All art is caricature’.

(This is not literally true, of course, but as we shall see, it is true surprisingly often.) And the same principle that applies for recognizing faces applies to all aspects of form recognition. It might seem a bit strange to regard caricatures as art but take a second look at the Chola bronze—the accentuated hips and bust of the Goddess Parvati (Plate 1) and you will see at once that what you have here is essentially a caricature of the female form. There may be neurons in the brain that represent sensuous, rotund feminine form as opposed to angular masculine form and the artist has chosen to amplify the ‘very essence’ (the rasa) of being feminine by moving the image even further along toward the feminine end of the female/male spectrum (Plate 4). The result of these amplifications is a ‘super stimulus’ in the domain of male/female differences. It is interesting, in this regard, that the earliest known forms of art are often caricatures of one sort or another; e.g. prehistoric cave art depicting animals like bison and mammoths, or the famous Venus ‘fertility’ figures. As a further example, look at the pair of nudes in Plate 5, a sculpture from Northern India (circa 800 AD). No normal woman can adopt such contorted postures and yet the sculpture is incredibly evocative—beautiful—capturing the rasa of feminine poise and grace. To explain how he achieves this effect, consider the fact that certain postures are impossible (and unlikely) among men but possible in women because of certain anatomical differences that impose constraints on what can or cannot be done. Now in our view what the artist has done here is to subtract the male posture from the female posture to produce a caricature in ‘posture space’ thereby amplifying ‘feminine posture’ and producing a correspondingly high limbic activation. The same can be said of the dancer in Plate 6 or for the amorous couple (Plate 7). Again, even though these particular, highly stylized anatomical poses are impossible (or unlikely) it is very evocative of the ‘Sringara Rasa’ or ‘Kama rasa’ (sexual and amorous ecstasy) because the artist is providing a ‘caricature’ that exaggerates the amorous pose. It is as though the artist was been able to intuitively access and powerfully stimulate neural mechanisms in the brain that represent ‘amorousness’.

A posture space might be realized in the form of a large set of remembered postures of people one has observed. (Whether one might expect such a memory mapping to exist in the ‘dorsal’ stream of visual processing, which connects with the agent’s own body representations, or the ‘ventral’ stream, known to be used for face perception, is an interesting question; perhaps the answer is, both). There is an obvious need to connect these posture representations to the limbic system: it is quite imperative that I recognize an attack posture, a posture — or body position — which beckons me, or one which indicates sadness or depression, etc. The sculptors of Plates 5 and 6 relied on this represented posture space in creating their works. The sculptor knows, consciously or not, that the sight of those postures will evoke a certain sort of limbic activation when the posture is successfully represented in the posture space system—he tells a story in this medium, we might say. Until now we have considered caricatures in the form domain, but we know from the pioneering work of many physiologists (Zeki, 1980; see also Livingstone and Hubel, 1987; Allman & Kaas, 1971; Van Essen & Maunsell, 1980) that the primate brain has specialized modules concerned with other visual modalities such as colour depth and motion. Perhaps the artist can generate caricatures by exploiting the peak shift effect along dimensions other than form space, e.g., in ‘colour space’ or ‘motion space’. For instance consider the striking examples of the plump, cherub-faced nudes that Boucher is so famous for. Apart from emphasizing feminine, neotonous babylike features (a peak shift in the masculine/feminine facial features domain) notice how the skin tones are exaggerated to produce an unrealistic and absurd ‘healthy’ pink flush. In doing this, one could argue he is producing a caricature in colour space, particularly the colours pertaining to male/female differences in skin tone. Another artist, Robert, on the other hand, pays little attention to colour or even to form, but tends to deliberately overemphasize the textural attributes of his objects, be they bricks, leaves, soil, or cloth. And other artists have deliberately exaggerated (‘caricatured’ or produced peak shifts in) shading, highlights, illumination etc to an extent that would never occur in a real image. Even music may involve generating peak shifts in certain primitive, passionate primate vocalizations such as a separation cry; the emotional response to such sounds may be partially hard-wired in our brains.

A potential objection to this scheme is that it is not always obvious in a given picture what the artist is trying to caricature, but this is not an insurmountable objection. Ethologists have long known that a seagull chick will beg for food by pecking at its mother’s beak. Remarkably, it will peck just as vigorously at a disembodied beak with no mother attached or even a brown stick with a red dot at the end (the gull’s beak has a vivid red spot near the tip). The stick with the red dot is an example of a ‘releasing stimulus’ or ‘trigger feature’ since, as far as the chick’s visual system is concerned this stimulus is as good as the entire mother bird. What is even more remarkable, though, was Tinbergen’s discovery (Tinbergen, 1954) that a very long, thin brown stick, with three red stripes at the end is even more effective in eliciting pecks than the original beak, even though it looks nothing like a beak to a human observer. The gull’s form recognition areas are obviously wired-up in such a way that Tinbergen had inadvertently produced a super stimulus, or a caricature in ‘beak space’ (e.g. the neurons in the gull’s brain might embody the rule ‘more red contour the better’). Indeed, if there were an art gallery in the world of the seagull, this ‘super beak’ would qualify as a great work of art—a Picasso. Likewise, it is possible that some types of 19 V.S. RAMACHANDRAN AND W. HIRSTEIN art such as cubism are activating brain mechanisms in such a way as to tap into or even caricature certain innate form primitives which we do not yet fully understand.

At present we have no idea what the ‘form primitives’ used by the human visual pathways are, but we suggest that many artists may be unconsciously producing heightened activity in the ‘form areas’ in a manner that is not obvious to the conscious mind, just as it isn’t obvious why a long stick with three red stripes is a ‘super beak’. Even the sunflowers of Van Gogh or the water lilies of Monet may be the equivalent—in colour space — of the stick with the three stripes, in that they excite the visual neurons that represent colour memories of those flowers even more effectively than a real sunflower or water lily might. There is also clearly a mnemonic component of aesthetic perception, including, the autobiographical memory of the artist, and of her viewer, as well as the viewer’s more general ‘cognitive stock’ brought to his encounter with the work. This general cognitive stock includes the viewer’s memory of his encounters with the painting’s etiological forebears, including those works that the artist himself was aware of. Often paintings contain homages to earlier artists and this concept of homage fits what we have said about caricature: the later artist makes a caricature of his acknowledged predecessor, but a loving one, rather than the ridiculing practised by the editorial cartoonist. Perhaps some movements in the history of art can be understood as driven by a logic of peak shift: the new art form finds and amplifies the essence of a previous one (sometimes many years previous, in the case of Picasso and African art). [2] Another manifestation of this principle can be seen in the florid sexual displays of birds—that we find so attractive. It is very likely, as suggested by Darwin, that the grotesque exaggeration of these displays, for example the magnificent wings of the birds of paradise, is a manifestation of the peak shift effect during mate choice—sexual selection caused by birds of each generation preferring caricatures of the opposite sex to mate with (just as humans lean toward Playboy pinups and Chippendale dancers). Indeed we have recently suggested (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998) that many aspect of morphological evolution (not just ‘secondary sexual characteristics’ or florid ‘ethological releasers’ and threat displays) may be the outcome of runaway selection, based on the peak shift principle. The result would be not only the emergence and ‘quantization’ of new species, but also a progressive and almost comical ‘caricaturization’ of phylogenetic trends of precisely the kind one sees in the evolution of elephants or ankylosaurs. Even the quirks of fashion design (e.g. corsets becoming absurdly narrow, shoes becoming smaller and smaller in ancient China, shrinking miniskirts) become more comprehensible in terms of this perceptual principle. One wonders, also, whether the striking resemblance between the accumulation of jewellery, shoes and other brightly coloured objects by humans and the collections of bright pebbles, berries and feathers by bowerbirds building their enormous nests is entirely coincidental.

Lastly, consider the evolution of facial expressions. Darwin proposed that a ‘threat gesture’ may have evolved from the real facial movements one makes before attacking a victim — i.e. the baring of canines, etc. The same movement may eventually become divorced from the actual act and begin to serve as a communication of intent — a threat. If the peak shift principle were to operate in the recipient’s brain it is easy to see how such a ritualized signal would become progressively amplified across generations. Darwin had a difficult time, however, explaining why gestures such as sadness (instead of joy) seem to involve the opposite movement of facial features—e.g. lowering the corners of the mouth—and he came up with his somewhat ad hoc ‘principle of antithesis’, which states that somehow the opposite emotion is automatically linked to the opposite facial movements. We would suggest, instead, that the principle of antithesis is, once again, an indirect result of the recipient’s brain applying the peak shift principle. Once the organism has circuitry in its brain that saysKis normal and J is a smile, then it may follow automatically that L is the expression of the opposite emotion—sadness. Whether this particular conjecture is correct or not we believe that emotional expressions analysed in terms of the peak shift effect may begin to make more sense than they have in the past. Another layer of complexity here is that even the perception of complex postures or actions may Perceptual Grouping and Binding is Directly Reinforcing One of the main functions of ‘early vision’ (mediated by the thirty or so extrastriate visual areas) is to discover and delineate objects in the visual field (Marr, 1981; Ramachandran, 1990; Pinker, 1998; Shepard, 1981) and for doing this the visual areas rely, once again, on extracting correlations.

For instance if a set of randomly placed spots A is superimposed on another set of randomly placed dots B, they are seen to mingle to form just a single enormous cluster. But if you now move one of the clusters (say, A) then all the dots are instantly glued or bound together perceptually to create an object that is clearly separate from the background cluster B. Similarly if cluster A is made of red dots (and B is of green dots) we have no difficulty in segregating them instantly. This brings us to our second point. The very process of discovering correlations and of ‘binding’ correlated features to create unitary objects or events must be reinforcing for the organism—in order to provide incentive for discovering such correlations (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). Consider the famous hidden face:

Initially seen as a jumble of splotches, once the Dalmatian is seen, its spots are grouped together — a pleasing effect, caused perhaps by activation of the limbic system by temporal lobe cortexrequire the observer to somehow internally re-enact or ‘rehearse’ the action before it is identified. For instance, patients with apraxia (inability to perform complex skilled movements resulting from damage to the left supramarginal gyrus) often, paradoxically, have difficulty perceiving and recognizing complex actions performed by others. Also, there are cells in the frontal lobes thought to be involved in the production of complex movements but which also fire when the animal perceives the same movements performed by a the experimenter (di Pellegrino et al., 1992). This finding — together with the peak shift effect—would help account for Darwin’s ‘principle of antithesis’, which would otherwise seem completely mysterious. Such cells may also be activated powerfully when viewing dynamic figural representations such as the ‘Dancing Devi’ (Plate 6). or Dalmatian dog photo (Fig. 2). This is seen initially as a random jumble of splotches. The number of potential groupings of these splotches is infinite but once the dog is seen your visual system links only a subset of these splotches together and it is impossible not to ‘hold on’ to this group of linked splotches. Indeed the discovery of the dog and the linking of the dog-relevant splotches generates a pleasant ‘aha’ sensation. In ‘colour space’ the equivalent of this would be wearing a blue scarf with red flowers if you are wearing a red skirt; the perceptual grouping of the red flowers and your red skirt is aesthetically pleasing — as any fashion designer will tell you.

These examples suggest that there may be direct links in the brain between the processes that discover such correlations and the limbic areas which give rise to the pleasurable ‘rewarding’ sensations associated with ‘feature binding’. So when you choose a blue matte to frame your painting in order to ‘pick up’ flecks of blue in the painting you are indirectly tapping into these mechanisms. How is such grouping achieved? As noted above, the primate brain has over two dozen visual areas each of which is concerned with a different visual attribute such as motion, colour, depth, form, etc. These areas are probably concerned with extracting correlations in ‘higher dimensional’ spaces — such as ‘colour space’ or ‘motion space’. In a regular topographic map — e.g., in area 17 — features that are close together in physical space are also close together in the brain (which is all that is meant by ‘map’). But now think of non-topographic maps — say a map of ‘colour space’ — in which points that are close together in wavelength are mapped close together in the colour area of the brain even though they may be distant from each other physically (Barlow, 1986). Such proximity along different feature dimensions may be useful for perceptual grouping and ‘binding’ of features that are similar within that dimension. This argument sounds plausible, but why should the outputs of separate vision modules—space, colour, depth, motion, etc.—be sent directly to the limbic system before further processing has occurred? Why not delay the reinforcement produced by limbic activation until the object has actually been identified by neurons in inferotemporal cortex? After all, the various Gestalt grouping processes are thought to occur autonomously as a result of computations within each module itself (Marr, 1981) without benefit of either cross-module or ‘top down’ influences — so why bother hooking up the separate modules themselves to limbic regions? One resolution of this paradox might simply be that the serial, hierarchical, ‘bucket brigade’ model of vision is seriously flawed and that eliminating ambiguity, segmenting the scene and discovering and identifying objects do indeed rely on top down processes — at least to some situations (Churchland et al., 1994). The visual system is often called upon to segment the scene, delineate figure from ground and recognize objects in very noisy environments — i.e., to defeat camouflage — and this might be easier to accomplish if a limbic ‘reinforcement’ signal is not only fed back to early vision once an object has been completely identified, but is evoked at each and every stage in processing as soon as a partial ‘consistency’ and binding is achieved. This would explain why we say ‘aha’ when the Dalmatian is finally seen in Fig. 2—and why it is difficult to revert back to seeing merely splotches once the dog is seen as a whole: that particular percept is powerfully reinforced (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). In other words, even though the grouping may be initially based on autonomous process in each module (Marr, 1981), once a cluster of features becomes perceptually salient as a ‘chunk’ with boundaries (i.e. an object), it may send a signal to the limbic centres which in turn causes you to ‘hold on’ to that chunk to facilitate further computation. There is physiological evidence that grouping of features leads to synchronization of the spikes (action potentials) of neurons that extract those features (Singer and Gray, 1995; Crick and Koch, 1998) and perhaps it is this synchrony that allows the signal to be sent to the limbic pathways. (This, by the way, may be one reason why musical consonance often involves harmonics—for example, a C-major chord—which, for physical reasons would tend to emerge from a single object, whereas dissonant notes are likely to emerge from two or more separate objects.) The key idea, then, is the following (and it applies to many of our laws, not just grouping). Given the limited attentional resources in the brain and limited neural space for competing representations, at every stage in processing there is generated a ‘Look here, there is a clue to something potentially object-like’ signal that produces limbic activation and draws your attention to that region (or feature) , thereby facilitating the processing of those regions or features at earlier stages. Furthermore, partial ‘solutions’ or conjectures to perceptual problems are fed back from every level in the hierarchy to every earlier module to impose a small bias in processing and the final percept emerges from such progressive ‘bootstrapping’ (Ramachandran et al., 1998). As noted above, consistency between partial high-level ‘hypotheses’ and earlier low-level ensembles also generates a pleasant sensation — e.g. the Dalmatian dog ‘hypothesis’ encourages the binding of corresponding splotches which, in turn, further consolidate the ‘dog-like’ nature of the final percept and we feel good when it all finally clicks in place. And what the artist tries to do, is to tease the system with as many of these ‘potential object’ clues as possible—an idea that would help explain why grouping and ‘perceptual problem solving (see below) are both frequently exploited by artists and fashion designers.

The notion that art exploits grouping principles is of course not new (Gombrich, 1973; Arnheim, 1956; Penrose, 1973), but what is novel here is our claim that the grouping doesn’t always occur ‘spontaneously’; that out of a temporary binding a signal sent to the limbic system to reinforce the binding, and this is one source of the aesthetic experience. For example, in Fig. 3, there are two possible stable organizations, one with hourglasses, and one with closure and most people find the latter 23 V.S. RAMACHANDRAN AND W. HIRSTEIN Figure 3 Gestalt grouping principles. The tokens can be grouped either on the basis of ‘proximity’ (which produces hourglasses), or ‘closure’. The latter organization is more stable and pleasing to the eye. organization more pleasing than the former because the limbic activation is stronger with this closure-based object-like percept. When artists speak of composition, or grouping, they are probably unconsciously tapping into these very same principles. One obvious prediction that emerges from this theory is that patients with Kluver- Bucy syndrome — caused by bilateral amygdala destruction — should not only display problems in recognizing objects (visual agnosia) but also in segmenting them out from noisy backgrounds, an idea that would be relatively easy to test experimentally.

Isolating a Single Module and Allocating Attention

The third important principle (in addition to peak shift and binding) is the need to isolate a single visual modality before you amplify the signal in that modality. For instance, this is why an outline drawing or sketch is more effective as ‘art’ than a full colour photograph. This seems initially counterintuitive since one would expect that the richer the cues available in the object the stronger the recognition signal and associated limbic activation. This apparent objection can be overcome, however, once one realizes that there are obvious constraints on the allocation of attentional resources to different visual modules. Isolating a single area (such as ‘form’ or ‘depth’ in the case of caricature or Indian art) allows one to direct attention more effectively to this one source of information, thereby allowing you to notice the ‘enhancements’ introduced by the artist. (And that in turn would amplify the limbic activation and reinforcement produced by those enhancements). Consider a full-colour illustration of Nixon, with depth, shading, skin tones and blemishes, etc. What is unique about Nixon is the form of his face (as amplified by the caricature) but the skin tone—even though it makes the picture more human-like — doesn’t contribute to making him ‘Nixon like’ and therefore actually detracts from the efficacy of the form cues. Consequently, one would predict that a full colour photo of Nixon would actually be less aesthetically pleasing than a sketchy outline drawing that captures the essential ‘Nixon-like’ attributes of his face. The idea that outlines are effective in art is hardly new. It has been repeated ad nauseum by many authors, ever since David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel (1979) originally pointed out that this principle may reflect the fact that cells in the visual pathways are adequately stimulated by edges and are indifferent to homogeneous regions. However this would only explain why one can get away with just using outlines — not why outlines are actually more effective than a full colour half tone photo, which, after all, has more information. We would argue that when the colour, skin texture, etc. are not critical for defining the identity of the object in question (e.g. Nixon’s face) then the extra redundant information can actually distract your limited attentional resources away from the defining attributes of that object. Hence the aphorism ‘more is less’ in Art. Additional evidence for this view comes from the ‘savant syndrome’ — autistic children who are ‘retarded’ and yet produce beautiful drawings. The animal drawings of the eight-year old artist Nadia, for instance, are almost as aesthetically pleasing as those of Leonardo da Vinci! (Plate 8).We would argue that this is because the fundamental disorder in autism is a distortion of the ‘salience landscape’; they shut out many important sensory channels thereby allowing them to deploy all their attentional resources on a single channel; e.g., in ‘visual form representation’ channel in the case of Nadia. This idea is also consistent with the ingenious theory of Snyder (Snyder and Thomas, 1997), that savants are able to ‘directly access’ the outputs of some of their early vision modules because they are less ‘concept driven’: the conceptual impoverishment that produces autism also, paradoxically, gives them better access to earlier processes in vision. And finally, we would suggest that the ‘isolation’ principle also explains the efflorescence of artistic talent that is occasionally seen in fronto-temporal dementia in adults: a clinical phenomenon that is currently being studied intensively in our laboratory.

These ideas allow us to make certain novel predictions: If you put luminous dots on a person’s joints and film him or her walking in complete darkness, the complex motion trajectories of the dots are usually sufficient to evoke a compelling impression of a walking person—the so-called Johansson effect (Johansson, 1975). Indeed, it is often possible to tell the sex of the person by watching the gait. However, although these movies are often comical, they are not necessarily pleasing aesthetically. We would argue that this is because even though you have isolated a cue along a single dimension, i.e., motion, this isn’t really a caricature in motion space. To produce a work of art, you would need to subtract the female motion trajectories from the male and amplify the difference. Whether this would result in a pleasing work of kinetic art remains to be seen.
Contrast Extraction is Reinforcing Grouping, as we have already noted, is an important principle, but the extraction of features prior to grouping — which involves discarding redundant information and extracting contrast—is also ‘reinforcing’. Cells in the retina, lateral geniculate body (a relay station in the brain) and in the visual cortex respond mainly to edges (step changes in luminance) but not to homogeneous surface colours; so a line drawing or cartoon stimulates these cells as effectively as a ‘half tone’ photograph. What is frequently overlooked though is that such contrast extractions — as with grouping — may be intrinsically pleasing to the eye (hence the efficacy of line drawings). Again, though, if contrast is extracted autonomously by cells in the very earliest stages of processing, why should the process be rewarding in itself?We suggest that the answer once again has to do with the allocation of attention. Information (in the Shannon sense) exists mainly in regions of change—e.g. edges—and it makes sense that such regions would, therefore, be more attention grabbing — more ‘interesting’ — than homogeneous areas. So it may not be coincidental that what the cells find interesting is also what the organism as a whole finds interesting and perhaps in some circumstances ‘interesting’ translates into ‘pleasing’.

For the same reason, contrast along many other stimulus dimensions besides luminance, such as colour or texture, has been exploited by artists (for instance, colour contrast is exploited by Matisse), and indeed there are cells in the different visual areas specialized for colour contrast, or motion contrast (Allman and Kaas, 1971). Furthermore, just as one can speak of a peak shift principle along very abstract dimensions, contrast can also emerge in dimensions other than luminance or colour. Notice that the boundary between the two types of texture (vertical vs. horizontal lines) is clearly visible on the upper pattern (A), but is masked by the luminance boundaries on the lower (B). (Based on M.J. Morgan; personal communication). A B instance, a nude wearing baroque (antique) gold jewellery (and nothing else) is aesthetically much more pleasing than a completely nude woman or one wearing both jewellery and clothes, presumably because the homogeneity and smoothness of the naked skin contrasts sharply with the ornateness and rich texture of the jewellery. Whether the analogy between luminance contrast extracted by cells in the brain and the contrast between jewels and naked skin is just a play of words or a deep unifying principle is a question that cannot be answered given what we know about the brain. But we do know that the attention grabbing effect of contrast must be a very important principle in nature, since it is often used as a camouflage device by both predators and heir prey. For instance, in Fig. 4A, a texture border is very visible, but in Fig. 4B it is almost ‘invisible’, camouflaged by the colour (black/white) borders that grab the lion’s share of your attention. At first the two principles we have just considered seem antithetical; grouping on the basis of similarity is rewarding, but if so how can contrast (the very opposite of grouping) also be rewarding? One clue comes from the fact that the two mechanisms have different spatial constraints; grouping can occur between similar features (e.g. colour or motion) even if they are far apart in space (e.g., the spots on the nose and tail of a leopard). Contrast, on the other hand, usually occurs between dissimilar features that are physically close together. Thus even though the two processes seem to be inconsistent, they actually complement one another in that they are both concerned with the discovery of objects—which is the main goal of vision. (Contrast extraction is concerned with the object’s boundaries whereas grouping allows recovery of the object’s surfaces and, indirectly, of its boundaries as well). It is easy to see then why the two should be mutually reinforcing and rewarding to the organism.


Symmetry, of course, is also aesthetically pleasing as is well known to any Islamic artist (or indeed to any child looking through a kaleidoscope) and it is thought to be extracted very early in visual processing (Julesz, 1971). Since most biologically important objects — such as predator, prey or mate are symmetrical, it may serve as an early-warning system to grab our attention to facilitate further processing of the symmetrical entity until it is fully recognised. As such, this principle complements the other laws described in this essay; it is geared towards discovering ‘interesting’ object-like entities in the world. Intriguingly, it has recently been shown experimentally that when choosing a mate, animals and humans prefer symmetrical over asymmetrical ones and evolutionary biologists have argued that this is because parasitic infestation —detrimental to fertility — often produces lopsided, asymmetrical growth and development. If so, it is hardly surprising that we have a built-in aesthetic preference for symmetry.

The Generic Viewpoint and the Bayesian Logic of Perception

Another less well known principle relates to what AI researchers refer to as ‘the generic viewpoint’ principle, which is illustrated in Fig. 5A and B and Fig. 6A and B. In Fig. 5A most people see a square occluding the corner of another square, even though it could theoretically be Fig. B seen from a unique view point. The reason is One square is seen as occluding the other. It is hard to see A as B viewed from a unique vantage point. The brain ‘prefers’ the generic view. Figure 6 The flat hexagon with radiating spokes could be a cube but is never seen as one. The ‘generic’ interpretation is again the brain’s preferred one. Figure 7 The brain’s abhorrence of ‘suspicious coincidences’ (a phrase used by Horace Barlow). Figure B is pleasing, but A is distasteful to the eye. A B that there is an infinite set of viewpoints that could produce the class of retinal images resembling A, but only a single, unique viewpoint that could produce retinal image A, given the objects in B. Consequently, the visual system rejects the latter interpretation as being highly improbable and prefers to see A as occlusion. (The same principle applies to 6A and B; A could depict an outline of a cube seen from one specific vantage point, but people usually see it as a flat hexagon with spokes radiating from the middle.) These examples illustrate the universal Bayesian logic of all perception: your visual system abhors interpretations which rely on a unique vantage point and favours a generic one or, more generally, it abhors suspicious coincidences (Barlow, 1980). For this reason, Fig. 7B is pleasing, whereas 7A is unattractive (palm tree and hills). So if an artist is trying to please the eye, he too, should avoid coincidences, such as those in 7A and 6B. Yet one must be cautious in saying this since every now and then—given the perverse nature of art and artists—a pleasing effect can be produced by violating this principle rather than adhering to it. For instance, there is a Picasso nude in which the improbability of the arm’s outline exactly coinciding with that of the torso grabs the viewer’s attention — and is arguably attractive to him!

We hasten to add that the principles we have discussed so far certainly do not exhaust all types of artistic experience. We have hardly touched on the purely symbolic or allegorical aspects of some types of paintings or sculpture, or on surrealism and modern abstract art (e.g., minimalists such as Kandinsky), not to mention ‘counter’ art such as the Dada movement. Also very puzzling is the question of why a nude hidden by a diaphanous veil is more alluring than one seen directly in the flesh, as pointed out by Ernst Gombrich (1973). It is as though an object discovered after a struggle is more pleasing than one that is instantly obvious. The reason for this is obscure but perhaps a mechanism of this kind ensures that the struggle itself is reinforcing — so that you don’t give up too easily — whether looking for a leopard behind foliage or a mate hidden in the mist. On the other hand, we suspect that surrealist art really doesn’t have much to do with visual representations per se but involves playing with links between vision and semantics, thereby taking it closer to the metaphorical ambiguities of poetry and language than to the purely visual appeal of a Picasso, a Rodin, or a Chola bronze. For example, in his erotic masterpiece ‘Young virgin autosodomised by her own chastity’ (1954), Dali has used the male penis to represent the female buttocks and genitalia. The medium and message ‘resonate’ since they both pertain to sex but they are also in subtle conflict since they depict ‘opposite’ sexes! The result is an image pleasing on many levels simultaneously. This playful, whimsical, aspect of art, often involving the humorous juxtaposition of complementary— or sometimes even incongruous—elements, is perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of our aesthetic experience, one which we have hardly touched upon in this essay. Another aspect of art that we have not dealt with is style, although one can see how once a style or trend is set in motion the peak shift principle can certainly help amplify it.

Art as Metaphor

The use of visual metaphors in art is well known. For instance, in Plate 9, the languorous, sensuous pose of the woman mimics the tree branch above — the curves match her curves and perhaps the tree’s fertility is a metaphor for her youthfulness. (Just as in Plate 4, the fruit in the tree echoes the curve of the breasts as well as the abdomen.) There are countless examples of this sort in both Eastern and Western art and yet the question is rarely raised as to why visual ‘puns’ or allegories should be aesthetically pleasing. A metaphor is a mental tunnel between two concepts or percepts that appear grossly dissimilar on the surface. When Shakespeare says ‘Juliet is the sun,’ he is appealing to the fact that they are both warm and nurturing (not the fact that they both reside in our solar system!). But, again, why should grasping an analogy of this kind be so rewarding to us? Perhaps the use of a simple concrete example (or one that is easily visualised, such as the sun) allows us to ignore irrelevant, potentially distracting aspects of an idea or percept (e.g. Juliet has nails, teeth and legs) and enables us to ‘highlight’ the crucial aspects (radiance and warmth) that she shares with the sun but not with other women. Whether this is purely a device for effective communication, or a basic cognitive mechanism for encoding the world more economically, remains to be seen. The latter hypothesis may well be correct. There are many paintings that instantly evoke an emotional response long before the metaphor is made explicit by an art critic. This suggests that the metaphor is effective even before one is conscious of it, implying that it might be a basic principle for achieving economy of coding rather than a rhetorical device. This is also true of poetic metaphors, as when Shakespeare says of Juliet, ‘Death, that has sucked the honey of thy breath’: the phrase is incredibly powerful well before one becomes consciously aware of the hidden analogy between the ‘sting of death’ and the bee’s sting and the subtle sexual connotations of ‘sucking’ and ‘breath’. Classifying objects into categories is obviously vital for survival, e.g. prey vs. predator, edible vs. inedible, male vs. female, etc. Seeing a deep similarity — a common denominator as it were — between disparate entities is the basis of all concept formation whether the concepts are perceptual (‘Juliet’) or more abstract (‘love’). Philosophers often make a distinction between categories or ‘types’ and ‘tokens’ — the exemplars of a type — (e.g. ‘ducks’ vs. ‘that duck’). Being able to transcend tokens to create types is an essential step in setting up a new perceptual category. Being able to see the hidden similarities between successive distinct episodes allows you to link or bind these episodes to create a single super-ordinate category, e.g., several viewer-centred representations of a chair are linked to form a viewer independent abstract representation of ‘chairness’.

Consequently, the discovery of similarities and the linking of superficially dissimilar events would lead to a limbic activation—in order to ensure that the process is rewarding. It is this basic mechanism that one taps into, whether with puns, poetry, or visual art. Partial support for this view comes from the observation that these mechanisms can go awry in certain neurological disorders. In Capgras syndrome, for instance, connections from the visual ‘face region’ in the inferotemporal cortex to the amygdala (a part of the limbic system where activation leads to emotions) are severed so that a familiar face no longer evokes a warm fuzzy emotional response (Hirstein and Ramachandran, 1997). Remarkably, some Capgras patients are no longer able to link successive views of a person’s face to create more general perceptual category of that particular face.We suggested that in the absence of limbic activation—the ‘glow’ of recognition—there is no incentive for the brain to link successive views of a face, so that the patient treats a single person as several people. When we showed our Capgras patient DS different photos of the same person, he claimed that the photos were of different people, who merely resembled each other! One might predict, therefore, that patients like DS would also experience difficulty in appreciating the metaphorical nuances of art, but such a prediction is not easy to test.

An Experimental Test

We conclude by taking up the final test of any theory: does it lead to counterintuitive predictions that can be tested experimentally? One approach—albeit a laborious one —would be to do ‘psychophysics’ on artistic experience: show people different types of pictures to see what they find pretty. The principles outlined above are difficult to test individually, but we believe that the very first one — the peak shift principle — can be tested directly. To do so one could measure the galvanic skin response (also known as skin conductance response, SCR) of naive experimental subjects to photos and drawings or caricatures. When you look at any evocative picture, the image is extracted by the ‘early’ visual areas and sent to the inferotemporal cortex — an area specialized for detecting faces and other objects. Once the object has been recognized, its emotional significance is gauged by the amygdala at the pole of the temporal lobe and if it is important the message is relayed to the autonomic nervous system (via the hypothalamus) so that you prepare to fight, flee, or mate. This in turn causes your skin to sweat, producing changes in its electrical resistance — a skin conductance response. So every time you look at your mother or even a famous face such as Einstein’s or Gandhi’s, you will get an SCR, but not if you look at an unfamiliar face, or a chair or a shoe (unless you happen to have a shoe fetish!). So the size of the SCR is a direct measure of the amount of limbic (emotional) activation produced by an image. It is a better measure, as it turns out, than simply asking someone how much emotion he feels about what he is looking at because the verbal response is filtered, edited, and sometimes censored by the conscious mind—so that your answer is a ‘contaminated’ signal. Indeed there are patients with damage to the inferotemporal cortex who cannot consciously recognize their mother, yet will still register a larger SCR to her face than to unfamiliar people (Bauer, 1984; Tranel and Damasio, 1985; 1988).

Conversely, we have shown that another type of patient has the opposite problem: he consciously recognizes her, but gets no emotional/limbic response to her and hence creates the delusion that she is some sort of impostor (Hirstein and Ramachandran, 1997). These examples suggest that measuring SCR somehow allows you to directly access those ‘unconscious’ mental processes. The responses we get to art objects may similarly be only partly available to conscious experience. You may deny you are attracted to a chap for all sorts of socio-cultural reasons but your hidden attraction to him may manifest itself as a large SCR to his photo (or sometimes, it may spill over when you dream during REM sleep)!

Our experiment, then, is quite simple. Compare a subject’s SCR to a caricature or even just an outline drawing of, say, Einstein or Nixon to his SCR to a photo of Einstein or Nixon. Intuitively, one would expect the photo to produce a large SCR because it is rich in cues and therefore excites more modules. One might find, paradoxically, that the drawing actually elicits a larger SCR, and if so, this would provide evidence for our ideas on the peak shift effect — the artist has unconsciously produced a super stimulus. As a control, one would show photos which have been morphed to look strange to ensure that it was not merely the strangeness of the caricature which was producing the larger SCR. Similarly, one could also compare the magnitude of an SCR to caricatures of women (or indeed, to a Chola bronze nude or a Picasso nude) with the SCR to a photo of a nude woman. It is conceivable that the subject might claim to find the photo more attractive at a conscious level, while registering a large ‘unconscious aesthetic response’—in the form of a larger SCR—to the artistic representation. That art taps into the ‘subconscious’ is not a new idea, but our SCR measurements may be the first attempt to test such a notion experimentally. Another ‘experiment’ on art could take advantage of the fact that many cells in the inferotemporal cortex of monkeys respond selectively to monkey (and human!) faces — sometimes selectively just to a single face (Tovee et al., 1996). Again, one could try confronting the cell with a drawing or caricature of the particular monkey (or human) face it was responding to. Would the cell respond even more vigorously to a ‘superstimulus’ of this kind?

In summary, we have identified a small subset of principles underlying all the diverse manifestations of human artistic experience. There are undoubtedly many others (cf. the principle of visual repetition or ‘rhythm’), but these eight principles are a good place to start. We shall call them ‘the eight laws of artistic experience,’ based on a loose analogy with the Buddha’s ‘eight-fold path’ to wisdom and enlightenment. One, the peak shift principle; not only along the form dimension, but also along more abstract dimensions, such as feminine/masculine posture, colour (e.g. skin tones) etc. Furthermore, just as the gull chick responds especially well to a super beak that doesn’t resemble a real beak, there may be classes of stimuli that optimally excite neurons that encode form primitives in the brain, even though it may not be immediately obvious to us what these primitives are. Two, isolating a single cue helps the organism allocate attention to the output of a single module thereby allowing it to more effectively ‘enjoy’ the peak shift along the dimensions represented in that module. Three, perceptual grouping to delineate figure and ground may be enjoyable in its own right, since it allows the organism to discover objects in noisy environments. Principles such as figure–ground delineation, closure and grouping by similarity may lead to a direct aesthetic response because the modules may send their output to the limbic system even before the relevant objects has been completely identified. Four, just as grouping or binding is directly reinforcing (even before the complete object is recognized), the extraction of contrast is also reinforcing, since regions of contrast are usually information-rich regions that deserve allocation of attention. Camouflage, in nature, relies partly on this principle. Five, perceptual ‘problem solving’ is also reinforcing. Hence a puzzle picture (or one in which meaning is implied rather than explicit) may paradoxically be more alluring than one in which the message is obvious.

There appears to be an element of ‘peekaboo’ in some types of art — thereby ensuring that the visual system ‘struggles’ for a solution and does not give up too easily. For the same reason, a model whose hips and breasts are about to be revealed is more provocative than one who is completely naked. (E.g., in Plate 6 the necklace just barely covers the nipples and the dress is almost sliding off the hips.) Six, an abhorrence of unique vantage points. Seven, perhaps most enigmatic is the use of visual ‘puns’ or metaphors in art. Such visual metaphors are probably effective because discovering hidden similarities between superficially dissimilar entities is an essential part of all visual pattern recognition and it would thus make sense that each time such a link is made, a signal is sent to the limbic system. Eight, symmetry — whose relevance to detecting prey, predator or healthy mates is obvious. (Indeed, evolutionary biologists have recently argued that detecting violations of symmetry may help animals detect unhealthy animals that have parasites.) One potential objection might be that originality is the essence of art and our laws do not capture this. But the flaw in this objection becomes apparent when you consider the analogy with language. After all the ‘deep structure’ of language discovered by Chomsky has enormously enriched our understanding of language even if it doesn’t explain Shakespeare, Valmiki, Omar Khayyam or Henry James. Likewise, our eight laws may help provide a framework for understanding aspects of visual art, aesthetics and design, even if they don’t necessarily explain the evocativeness or originality of individual works of art.

In conclusion, we suggest that a great deal of what we call art is based on these eight principles. We recognize, of course, that much of art is idiosyncratic, ineffable and defies analysis but would argue that whatever component of art is lawful—however small — emerges either from exploiting these principles or from a playful and deliberate violation of them. We cannot resist concluding with a joke: A young man brings his fiancée home to introduce her to his father. His father is astonished to note that she has a clubfoot, a squint, a cleft palate and is hunchbacked, and can hardly conceal his dismay. Noticing his father’s reaction, his son calmly tells him, ‘Well Dad, what can I say? You either like a Picasso or you don’t.’

We thank Diane Rogers-Ramachandran, Francis Crick, Odile Crick, Julia Kindy, Mumtaz Jahan and Niki de Saint Phalle for stimulating discussions on numerous topics straddling the boundary between art and science. VSR also thanks All Souls College, Oxford, for a fellowship that allowed him to complete this project.

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Kalayana Mitra

“We can see the psychological part of our path as wound healing – an important step, as stable growth beyond ego can’t occur without a healed foundation. The path goes beyond psychological when we begin to let go of the stories of the wounds. friendshipThe path enters depths of spirit when we begin to let go of the storyteller of the stories. In a beautiful synergy, the telling of the stories, the healing of the wounds, and the letting go of the stories work together to release the teller of the tales. It is a process that can occur in a microsecond or over years of mindful work. It’s a necessary process.

“We share the story first as story. Each of us can find a trusted other with whom to do this. We share the story, conscious of it as story, but honest about the fact that we still believe much of it, and that we will continue to, until we have grown considerably in wisdom.

“Having the courage to share our stories, to stop hiding both from ourselves and others, allows the healing experience of feeling understood and known. It allows connection through our vulnerability. We become spiritual friends, kalayana mitra in Sanskrit. We become soul friends, anam cara in Gaelic. We encourage each others’ boundaries to become more porous in the healing space of undefendedness and acceptance.”

                                                                    ~ Dr. Kathleen Singh, The Grace in Aging, pg. 235

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The Increasing of Necessity

The Increasing of Necessity

The tyrannical ruler of Turkestan was listening to the tales of a dervish one evening, when he bethought himself of asking about Khidr.

“Khidr,” said the dervish, “comes in response to need. Seize his coat when he appears, and all-knowledge is yours.”

“Can this happen to anyone?” asked the king.

“Anyone capable,” said the dervish.

“Who more ‘capable’ than I?” thought the king, and he published a proclamation:

“He who presents to me the Invisible Khidr, the Great Protector of Men, him shall I enrich.”

baba-sheikh-faridA poor old man by the name of Bakhtiar Baba, hearing this proclamation cried by the heralds, formed an idea. He said to his wife:

“I have a plan. We shall soon be rich, but a little later I shall have to die. But this does not matter for our riches will leave you well provided for.”

Then Bakhtiar went before the king and told him that he would find Khidr within forty days, if the king would give him a thousand pieces of gold. “If you find Khidr,” said the king, “You shall have ten times this thousand pieces of gold. If you do not, you will die, executed on this very spot as a warning to those who trifle with kings.”

Bakhtiar accepted the conditions. He returned home and gave the money to his wife, as a provision for the rest of her life. The rest of the forty days he spent in contemplation, preparing himself for the other life.

On the fortieth day he went before the king. “Your Majesty,” he said, “your greed caused you to think that money would produce Khidr. But Khidr, as it is related, does not appear in response to something given from a position of greed.”

The king was furious: “Wretch, you have forfeited your life: who are you to trifle with the aspirations of a king?”

Bakhtiar, said: “Legend has it that any man may meet Khidr, but the meeting will be fruitful only in so far as that mans’ intentions are correct. Khidr, they say, would visit you to the extent and for the period that you were worth his while being visited. This is something over which neither you nor I have any control.”

“Enough of this wrangling,” said the king, “for it will not prolong your life. It only remains to ask the ministers assembled here for their advice upon the best way to put you to death.”

He turned to First Wasir and said: “How shall this man die?”wazir

The First Wazir said, “Roast him alive as a warning.”

The Second Wazir, speaking in order of precedence, said: “Dismember him limb from limb.”

The Third Wazir said: Provide him with the necessities of life, instead of forcing him to cheat in order to provide for his family.”

While this discussion was going on, an ancient sage had walked into the assembly hall. As soon as the Third Wazir had spoken, the sage said: “Every man opines in accordance with his permanent hidden prejudices.”

“What do you mean?” asked the king.

“I mean, that the First Wazir was originally a baker, so he speaks in terms of roasting. The Second Wazir used to be a butcher, so he talks about dismemberment. The Third Wazir, having made a study of statecraft, sees the origin of the matter we are discussing.

“Note two things. First, that Khidr appears and serves each man in accordance with that man’s ability to profit by his coming. Second, that  this man, Bakhtiar, whom I name Baba in token of his sacrifices, was driven by despair to do what he did. He increased his necessity and accordingly made me appear to you.”

As they watched, the ancient sage melted before their eyes. Trying to do what Khidr directed, the king gave a permanent allowance to Bakhtiar. The First Two Wazirs were dismissed, and the thousand pieces of gold were returned to the royal treasury by Bakhtiar Baba and his wife.

How the king was able to see Khidr again, and what transpired between them is in the story of the story of the story of the Unseen World.

Bakhtiar Baba is said to have been a Sufi sage who lived a humble and unremarkable life in Khorasan until the events described above.

This tale, attributed also to many other Sufi sheikhs, illustrates the concept of the entwining of human aspiration with another range of being. Khidr is the link between these two spheres.

The title is taken from Jalaludin Rumi’s famous poem: “New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.”   ~ Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes

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Buddha’s Fifth Dream

Buddha’s Fifth Dream

While he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisattva, Buddha walked upon a huge mountain of dirt without being fouled by the dirt. This was the fifth dream that appeared to him, and it foretold that although the Perfect One would obtain the requisites of robes, alms food, abode, and medicine, yet he would use them without greed or delusion or clinging, perceiving their dangers and understanding their purpose.



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Your Divine Beautiful Brain


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The Ministry Model of a Charitable Heart

Information wants to be free. However, unconscious conflicts often arise in exchanging knowledge and information for money. In response, many individuals and institutions make their services available to anyone interested on a voluntary, offer-whatever-you-can basis. a-charitable-heartThe expectation is that those fortunate enough to have sufficient financial resources and who resonate with the mission – “to put a small dent in the suffering in the world” – will offer support so that services can be freely provided to those less fortunate.

How do we make a decision regarding what to offer? What seems to work best is to find that place where our brain observes us being overly fearful and meager, and the opposite neural circuitry where we can observe ourselves being extravagant and grandiose. Whatever we give, our brain is watching and generating an internal, mostly unconscious narrative about us. Bearing that in mind, it’s probably best to donate from The Goldilocks Zone of our charitable heart – not too little and not too much. In other words, what we would feel good about receiving were positions reversed.

“Let us try to teach and model generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”
~Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene


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