Neuroaesthetics: Beauty is Only Brain Deep

Research on a neuronal approach to beauty stirs up debate

Neuroaesthetics is a neuroscientific approach to beauty. An analysis of the first results was published just a year ago. For now, the field is still at an early stage, and the criticism is flying.

Neuroaesthetics is a neuroscientific approach to beauty. An analysis of the first results was published just a year ago. For now, the field is still at an early stage, and the criticism is flying.

This article was originally published as “Neuroesthétique, beauté et cerveau”. It was translated from French by Timothée Froelich.

In an article published in March 2013, the scientists Bevil R. Conway and Alexander Rehding shared their conclusions about the latest results in neuroaesthetics. This field addresses the perception of beauty by humans from a neuronal perspective. The authors of Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty concede the importance of this kind of brain research. What really matters is to know if beauty can be scientifically understood.

When Science Ventures Into the Realm of Beauty

Neuroaesthetics is an emerging science, which was only really defined in 2005. Among scientists, artists, art historians, philosophers, or even psychologists, very few people take the topic seriously. Consequently, the number of conclusive studies on neuroaesthetics is low and the circle of neuroaestheticians very limited.

Beauty is not a scientific notion. Those who oppose neuroaesthetics are concerned by the existence of a science that may lead to misuse and confusion. “One potential danger in aesthetic projects is to universalize subjective convictions and assume that the experience of beauty is common to all,” explain neuroscientist Bevil R. Conway and Alexander Rehding, a music researcher. The topic is, therefore, very controversial. For instance, Semir Zeki, neuroaesthetics professor at University College London (UCL), claims that artists instinctively understand how the human brain works: “The artist is, in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potential and capacities of the brain, though with different tools.” Will art make researchers’ heads spin?

Already, researchers from different disciplines have long studied beauty and art. Jacques Morizot, a professor at the University of Provence in France, and specialist in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, stresses that “multidisciplinarity is a good thing, particularly in this exploration phase, where nothing is clearly defined and points of reference remain insufficiently identified.”

From Criticism to Passion

Even if neuroaesthetics is not much talked about, it is still apparently worth getting passionate about. In March 2013, Evolution News & Views issued a virulent article on neuroaesthetics: “They say that beauty, because of its importance, invites a neuroscientific explanation. Why should that be, unless science has become scientism?” Demystifying a concept through scientific study does not seem to worry the neuroaestheticians, though.

As a matter of fact, the goal is actually to lift the veil from one of the brain’s mysteries, and associate neuronal activity with brain functions that neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux calls “superior”. Semir Zeki explains that “only by understanding the neural laws that dictate human activity in all spheres — in law, morality, religion, even economics and politics, as well as in art — that we can ever hope to achieve a better understanding of the nature of men.” To put it more modestly, studying the brain response during the experience of beauty could yield significant advances in understanding the visual and emotional organization of an abstract thought in the brain.

Hunting Down Beauty is Tough

For now, studies on this topic have only been able to show correlations, associations between situations and a response in certain regions of the brain. For example, researchers might ask people to classify images according to their beauty. Then, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they analyze the brain response to an image defined as beautiful, neutral, or ugly. When it comes to experiencing beauty, several studies underscore the major role of the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is associated with reward. This area seems to be strongly stimulated in the presence of images that the individual deems beautiful. Beauty is a subjective experience that also depends on the immediate situation that the individual is in, which makes the operating conditions of the experiment difficult to set.

Localization of the orbitofrontal cortex by magnetic resonance imaging
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, studying the experience of beauty amounts to studying several phases of the brain response: processing, encoding, and restitution. “It’s quite plausible that aesthetic attributions correspond to the resonance of large populations of neurons synchronizing momentarily or recurrently,” says Jacques Morizot. The brain’s study, then, is something very complex and neuroaesthetics a real jungle for researchers.


Find out more:

Philip Ball, March 2013 “Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul”

Emir Zeki, Statement on neuroesthetics

Ulrich Kirk, 2008 “The Neural Basis of Object-Context Relationships on Aesthetic Judgment” sur MyScienceWork