Beauty on the Brain

A new study reveals that our appreciation of all sorts of beauty seems to depend on the same brain area. And interestingly enough, it’s an area that’s also crucial for planning and social interaction.

Venus: almost as sexy as a brain. Almost.

As reported in the journal PLoS ONE, a team led by Professor Semir Zeki and Dr. Tomohiro Ishizu of the Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London (UCL) had volunteers from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds rate a series of images and musical pieces as beautiful, indifferent, or ugly. Then the subjects viewed and listened to the same music and art while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner:

Only one cortical area, located in the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC), was active during the experience of musical and visual beauty, with the activity produced by the experience of beauty derived from either source overlapping almost completely within it. The strength of activation in this part of the mOFC was proportional to the strength of the declared intensity of the experience of beauty.

The mOFC sits front-and-center in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobes that’s far more developed in humans than in any other animal. The OFC in general plays a part in complex tasks like social interaction, working memory, and expectations of reward and punishment.1 In short, it plays a major part in evaluating and reasoning about our intuitions. Previous studies had implicated the mOFC in appreciation of beauty, but Zeki and Ishizu were the first to prove its involvement so directly.

However, they also found that the mOFC doesn’t work alone. As you can probably guess, the visual cortex was heavily activated when the volunteers looked at art, and the auditory cortex responded to music.

But it seems that our aesthetic responses run far deeper even than that – the caudate nucleus, a structure located deep within the basal ganglia, also gets very excited about beautiful paintings. The caudate nucleus is packed with dopaminergic neurons, and is heavily involved in processes like feedback-based learning, perception of reward, addiction, and romantic love. That’s something worth pondering the next time you’re feeling moved by a “lovely” piece of art.

It’s also interesting to note that the definitions of “beautiful” and “artistic” don’t always overlap. In fact, they often create entirely different cerebral responses, which vary from person to person:

A painting by Francis Bacon, for example, may have great artistic merit but may not qualify as beautiful. The same can be said for some of the more ‘difficult’ classical composers — and whilst their compositions may be viewed as more ‘artistic’ than rock music, to someone who finds the latter more rewarding and beautiful, we would expect to see greater activity in the particular brain region when listening to Van Halen than when listening to Wagner.

So, you might say we’re discovering specific neurophysiological reasons why beauty lies in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.


1. As a weird side-note, research suggests that repeated doses of cannabinoids (the molecules that create the “high” associated with cannabis [marijuana] consumption) may make the OFC less expectant of rewards, and more inclined to anticipate unpleasantness – and that these anxieties can be worsened even further by insufficient social support.

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