The Neurology of Ambiguity

As I will be addressing the theme of ambiguity quite often, due to the reason that it’s the theme of my dissertation, I felt it was important to share some of the information I covered regarding ambiguity in Art as my first blog post. Within this post, I will be discussing briefly a small part of Mr. Samir Zeki’s academic paper titled “The Neurology of Ambiguity” which applies to my dissertation, where he discusses how the brain processes ambiguity in artworks.

In “The Neurology of Ambiguity”, Neurologist Semir Zeki opens by stating that this writing was executed as a catalyst and a foundation for further experiments, to understand ambiguity in art through a neurological lens. Zeki explains that the human brains primeval function is to acquire knowledge, but has evolved enough to also comprehend conditions that have several interpretations of equal validity. It is important to understand that the neurological definition of ambiguity is opposite to that found in the Oxford English Dictionary; “uncertain, open to more than one interpretation of doubtful position” but rather the certainty of numerous credible meanings. Zeki elaborates this by stating that our brain doesn’t simply record what’s happening around us, but it has to analyse it through perception to establish a sense of meaning, even when the stimuli is ambiguous. The “primary law” of the brain is to follow consistency, which means that our brains are only interested in consistency and unchanging properties of situations and objects. To do so the brain ignores what it considers unneeded when identifying situations and objects by these properties. (Zeki. S, 2003, Pp 173-175).

This structure completely changes when the brain is trying to make sense of a situation that has several conclusions, as it first has to discover what these conclusions could be and then decide which one is the actual conclusion. The difference is that genuine ambiguity, in neurological terms, is when each single conclusion is just as equal as the other, leaving the brain with the only one option left, to acknowledge them as such. In simpler terms, ambiguity is a result of inconsistency with the brain coming to terms that there are no constant properties, but numerous.

In direct relation to Ambiguity in Art, Zeki states that higher need of cognitive factors, such as; learning, memory and experience are invoked when perceiving ambiguous artworks, being a scene or a narrative that is left incomplete, completed by the brain in several methods. The author also stresses there are different levels of ambiguity, for example, the ambiguity present in the Rubin vase is different than the ambiguity present in the narrative of an artwork. These different levels of ambiguities may then invoke different areas of the brain, which have different “perceptual specialization”, that in turn invoke higher cognitive factors such as the above mentioned (Zeki. S, 2003, Pp 174-175).

If you want to find out more regarding Mr Samir Zeki’s paper, you can find the link within the Harvard reference below.