Science News

Beauty and the Brain

Thu, 7th Feb 2013

Victoria Gill

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Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist who is fascinated by the cognitive basis of beauty, pleasure and love, has measured the different ways our brains respond when we're making an aesthetic judgement compared to a perceptual judgement. So, in this case, he looked at how people's brains responded when they looked at two paintings and decided which was more beautiful compared to looking at two paintings and deciding which was more brightly coloured.

His main conclusion was that the two types of judgement are different- that making a judgement about aesthetics activated brain areas and neural pathways that were effectively silent when people decided how bright a painting was.

Two particularly important areas of our cortex (which is made up of the layers and layers of neurons that allow us to make memories and have higher thinking functions like attention and planning) that are activated when we're making a judgement about beauty is the orbitofrontal cortex, which doesn't seem to be activated at all when we're judging brightness.

Watching, measuring and understanding how these function will help to develop an idea of what exactly is going wrong in our brains when we have an affective disorder, such as depression, something that can rob people of their ability to appreciate beauty and take pleasure in things like music and art.

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I think it would be interesting to see what areas are activated in two people who are looking at one object where one participant finds the object aesthetically pleasing and the other dislikes it.  Is there any indication if aesthetic perception activates the dopamine system in some way? Minerva, Mon, 11th Feb 2013

I always wondered why certain experiences register as fun or pleasant that don't seem to have any benefit. Maybe similar experiences do have a benefit, and it's just riding the evolutionary coat tails. For example, why is snow sticking to the trees beautiful? Why is a sunny summer day so elevating to the mood compared to an overcast one, even if the weather is not threatening? And of course, things like music. cheryl j, Sat, 16th Feb 2013

I think we sometimes ignore the social and cultural aspects of enjoying and liking things.  Howard Becker showed how people learn to like things that they initially hate (in this instance smoking marijuana) from the people around them and how really, they were talked into seeing the dizziness and other effects as pleasant.  I rather suspect that drinking and smoking is the same. 

I wonder how much of our sense of something being aesthetically pleasing is a learned behaviour in that sense.  I see my niece feeding her baby food that she herself doesn't like sometimes and she cant help but pull a face-its quite subtle but I pick up on it and so does he.  Since babies learn by imitation its quite possible that they remember and are influenced by the faces/styles/objects that mum and dad like.  Well at least until puberty any way  Minerva, Sat, 16th Feb 2013

I'm in Oz, in drought, and my heart sings with all day gentle rain, and to a lesser degree, heavier rain.  Hot sunny days I find depressing, I LOATHE high winds, and high winds and hot days set me to low grade terror.  (Bushfires). menageriemanor, Tue, 19th Feb 2013

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