Professor Semir Zeki from University College London (UCL) has received a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award to establish a programme of research in the new field of “neuroaesthetics”. The research will build on his previous work into the neural mechanisms behind beauty and love.
Together with Professor Ray Dolan, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, Professor Zeki will look at questions that have been debated for millennia by writers, artists and philosophers and yet have been little studied by neurobiologists: Can we measure beauty objectively” How are beauty and love related” What does it mean to be happy”
“All human societies place a high premium on art and the pursuit of beauty,” says Professor Zeki. “We all value and reward creativity. We all want to pursue happiness. But what do these entities mean in concrete, neurobiological terms” We hope to address these issues experimentally. The results will not only increase our knowledge about the workings of the human brain but will also give deep insights into human nature and how we view ourselves.”
Neuroesthetics aims to illuminate the brain’s workings through its cultural products in a similar way to how neuroscientists study the brain through malfunctions caused by disease. However, Professor Zeki believes its impact may be much wider.
“The new field of neuroaesthetics will teach biologists to use the products of the brain in art, music, literature and mathematics to better understand how the brain functions,” he says. “Success will encourage an interdisciplinary approach to other fields, such as the study of economics or jurisprudence in terms of brain activity. This will have a deep impact on social issues.”
Using Wellcome Trust funding, Professor Zeki hopes to attract students and researchers from the sciences, arts and humanities in truly interdisciplinary research. Their work will be overseen by an Advisory Board that will include author AS Byatt, physician, opera producer and broadcaster Sir Jonathan Miller and Dr. Deborah Swallow, Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
“Professor Zeki is a Renaissance Man for the twenty-first century,” says Professor Richard Morris, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust. “His research sees no boundaries between science and the arts and humanities and will provide an exciting insight in issues that strike at the heart of what it is to be human.”
Heroin, or diacetylmorphine to give it its scientific name, was first synthesized in 1874 by an English gentleman called C. R. Alder Wright. It wasn’t until 1898 that a man called Heinrich Dreser, head of drug development at German pharmaceutical company Bayer, saw the commercial potential in the drug.
Dreser started developing the drug as treatment for respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, asthma and tuberculosis, testing the drug on animals, human test subjects and even himself. Unsurprisingly Dreser and his test subjects liked the drug, saying it made them feel “heroisch” German for heroic. From this the brand name heroin was born.
Heroin was given a big thumbs up from Dreser and the Bayer big bosses. Samples of the drug were given out to doctors who in turn prescribed Heroin to their patients. Bayer was producing Heroin pastels, cough lozengers, tablets, water-soluble Heroin salts and a Heroin elixir.
Suspicion of the drug arose however when doctors started to report patients requesting Heroin cough syrup even though they weren’t showing any respiratory problems.
It turned out that Heroin was extremely addictive and detrimental to a person’s health. Bayer stopped producing and selling Heroin in 1913, deleting any mention of the drug in it’s company history. In 1924 Heroin was made illegal in the USA, even for medical purposes. In Britain, heroin is still used for medical purposes to this day, accounting for 95% of the worlds legal heroin use.