Beauty is in the brain of the beholder

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What happens when I stare at Portrait of Madame X or listen to Air on a G String? Both at intensely beautiful to me, but they are different experiences that involve different senses. Nonetheless, the sight of Sargent’s pigments and the sound of Bach’s notes trigger something in common – a part of the brain that lights up when we experience feelings of beauty, no matter how we experience them.

Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London watched the brains of 21 volunteers as they looked at 30 paintings and listened to 30 musical excerpts. All the while, they were lying inside an fMRI scanner, a machine that measures blood flow to different parts of the brain and shows which are most active. The recruits rated each piece as “beautiful”, “indifferent” or “ugly”.

The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones – the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.

Several studies have linked the mOFC to beauty, but this is a sizeable part of the brain with many roles. It’s also involved in our emotions, our feelings of reward and pleasure, and our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, Ishizu and Zeki found that one specific area, which they call “field A1” consistently lit up when people experienced beauty.

The images and music were accompanied by changes in other parts of the brain as well, but only the mOFC reacted to beauty in both forms. And the more beautiful the volunteers found their experiences, the more active their mOFCs were. That is not to say that the buzz of neurons in this area produces feelings of beauty; merely that the two go hand-in-hand.

This study touches on an age-old philosophical debate about the nature of beauty. Ishizu and Zeki cite the book Art, in which English art historian Clive Bell asked, “[What quality] is common to Sta Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cezanne?”

Bell was a proponent of formalism, a school of thought that places beauty and artistic merit within the properties of an object. He acknowledged the subjective nature of beauty but was searching for a “peculiar quality” or “significant form” within objects themselves. It’s a concept that Bell only vaguely defined, and it runs into trouble when you expand his list of beautiful objects to musical works or films or even elegant mathematical theorems. What qualities could these possibly have in common?

Ishizu and Zeki think that Bell’s “peculiar quality” lies not in works of art themselves (pieces of music included), but in the brains of their beholders. They suggest, “speculatively and tentatively, and perhaps even provocatively”, that the act of experiencing something beautiful is accompanied by an active mOFC, and particularly an active “field A1” within it. Ishizu and Zeki are not suggesting that the properties of art are irrelevant. Instead, as they write:

“Our proposal shifts the definition of beauty very much in favour of the perceiving subject and away from the characteristics of the apprehended object. Our definition… is also indifferent to what is art and what is not art. Almost anything can be considered to be art, but only creations whose experience has, as a correlate, activity in mOFC would fall into the classification of beautiful art… A painting by Francis Bacon may be executed in a painterly style and have great artistic merit but may not qualify as beautiful to a subject, because the experience of viewing it does not correlate with activity in his or her mOFC.”

It’s an intriguing and pleasingly equal approach. A beautiful thing is met with the same neural changes in the brain of a wealthy cultured connoisseur as in the brain of a poor, uneducated novice, as long as both of them find it beautiful.

Indeed, Ishizu and Zeki recruited people from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds, and showed them many different images and pieces – mostly Western, but some East Asian ones too. They made no judgments about the art, merely how the recruits responded to it. The fact that the activity of their mOFC rose with the strength of their feelings of beauty means this most subjective of experiences can be objectively measured in the brain of the beholder.

This doesn’t mean that all forms of beauty are represented in the same way in the brain, or that the mOFC is the only area involved in such representations. Edmund Rolls from the Oxford Centre for Computational Neuroscience points out that “different rewards activate different neurons in the OFC”. He says, “This specificity is important, for it is part of way in which actions can be directed towards a particular goal or reward.”

Put it this way: if you scanned my house, and you’d see that the ability to browse the internet, make phone calls, print documents, write on paper and play music all stem from the same small part of one room. But all those abilities are governed by different devices – devices that just all happen to sit on my desk. In the same way, it’s possible that different groups of neurons within the mOFC (and even within the A1 field) correspond to visual beauty or musical beauty.

Alternatively, other parts of the brain could play a role. The visual centres also lit up when the volunteers saw beautiful images, and the auditory centres lit up when they heard beautiful music. That’s as expected, but Ishizu and Zeki think that these areas also affect the perception of beauty”. It’s something that “provides a very interesting puzzle for the future.”

Of course, this is a small and preliminary study but, refreshingly, Ishizu and Seki acknowledge that. “We emphasize that our theory is tentative,” they write. “[It] will stand or fall depending upon whether future studies of the experience of beauty in other domains show that, in these too, the experience correlates with activity in field A1 of mOFC.” For example, does a scientist learning about a “beautiful” idea experience the same buzz in their mOFC as a gallery visitor looking at a Monet?

Reference: Ishizu & Zeki. 2011. Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021852

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