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Semir Zeki: Beauty is in the brain of the beholder

A paper suggests that you can determine what a person finds beautiful just by examining his or her brain state.

Beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder – it’s in the brain, according to a 2011 paper in the online journal PLoS One. And in a very specific part of the braia, too: the medial orbito-frontal cortex, located just behind the eyes. That’s according to co-author of the new PLoS One paper and brain expert Professor Semir Zeki, of the University College London. He told EarthSky’s Beth Lebwohl:

Philosophers have always been interested in: what is beauty, and what do all things that are experienced as beautiful have in common? And we are attacking these questions in an experimental setting. Can we answer any of these questions by reference to what happens in the brain?

Apparently, the answer is yes. Zeki exposed people from all kinds of different cultural/gender/age backgrounds to works of visual art and music. According to his paper:

The visual stimuli included paintings of portraits, landscapes and still lifes … The auditory stimuli included classical and modern excerpts.

Zeki found, by examining MRI images of his subjects’ brains, that when people look at something they find beautiful, a portion in the front part of the brain called the medial orbito-frontal cortex “lights up.” That is, there’s increased blood flow in this area. He believes it’s a near-universal response to beauty. Zeki added that the medial orbito-frontal cortex is a portion of the brain associated with pleasure, and also reward.

It really tells you seeking beauty is in fact seeking to reward your pleasure centers.

Seeking to reward them with the neurotransmitter dopamine, also known as the feel-good chemical of the brain. Zeki added that one thing that’s novel about his study – and a result he wasn’t expecting – is that beauty as perceived through the eyes (e.g., visual art), and beauty you receive through the ears (e.g., music) aren’t routed to different parts of the brain; they both “reward” the same spot. Not only that, he said, the degree of activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex correlates very strongly to the degree to which you find a thing attractive. He explained:

Image Credit: was_a_bee

The extent of activity in the medial frontal cortex is directly proportional to the declared intensity of beauty. So if you experience something as very beautiful on a scale of 1 to 10 and you give it a 10, then the activity is going to be stronger than if you experience it as a 1 out of 10.

By contrast, Zeki said, he found that when people see something that’s aesthetically displeasing – something they find ugly – it lights up a completely different part of the brain.

… It is another region of the brain … called the amygdyla, which is also active when you look at frightening stimuli … also active with fear and anger … as if the body is being mobilized, or prepared, or planning some kind of motor action to avoid what is ugly.

Zeki said this research is most interesting to him because it offers a completely modern definition of beauty – instead of trying to find out which characteristics all beautiful objects (or musical works) have in common, he’s busy figuring out what they have in common in terms of how the brain perceives them.

Zeki added that his findings about how beauty affects the brain are so specific, the data could be useful to people like advertisers or the art community. But, he warned, applications of this research have certain ethical strings attached. Why? Because, just by looking at a person’s brain with an MRI, you can tell what they like, what they don’t like, and to what degree. In other words, looking into someone’s brain could translate into a real invasion of emotional privacy. He told EarthSky:

I think you’ll be able to tell what people like, what people dislike, what people find beautiful, what people find not beautiful. But this is of course an invasion into their subjective states, and invasion into their very private lives, and I’m not sure you want to do that. At any rate, this is not a question that should be left to [just] scientists. We are really interested in learning more about the brain. But all these studies done all over the world about value, judgment, reward pleasure and all these things are basically invading our very private worlds, and we have to be careful about this information.

Bottom line: According to co-author of the new PLoS One paper and brain expert Professor Semir Zeki, of the University College London, MRI scans show a specific part of the brain lighting up when something beautiful is seen or heard.

Beth Lebwohl