The search for beauty has spurred great works of art and music, lengthy philosophical treatises and decades of dense cultural criticism. So, is beauty in the object? The eye of the beholder? Somewhere in between?
The time has come "for neurobiology to tackle these fundamental questions," Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at University College London, said in a prepared statement.
Zeki and a colleague at the Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology decided to see if they could find common brain patterns in people from different cultures as they observed things that they described as beautiful. For the study, 10 western Europeans, four Japanese, three Chinese, two Indians and two Americans assessed 60 paintings and 60 musical compositions as being beautiful, ugly or inspiring no more than indifference. The subjects then experienced the stimuli again and were asked to make another aesthetic evaluation, during which processes researchers recorded the subjects' brain patterns via fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).
In each of the subjects' brains, a 16-second flash of a painting or 16-second musical clip that they had rated (as somewhat to very) beautiful corresponded to an equally strong spark of activity in a tiny 15-to 17-millimeter-wide section of the medial orbitofrontal cortex. The findings were published online July 6 in PLoS ONE.
The medial orbitofrontal cortex has previously been linked to perception of beauty—as well as to pleasure, value and judgment. But this new study uncovers a more nuanced picture of individuals' perception of beauty across different mediums. And the findings suggest that even though the definition of "art" can be anything from a decontextualized urinal to harsh soundscapes, the brain processes "beauty" independently.
"A painting by Francis Bacon, for example, may have great artistic merit but may not qualify as beautiful," Zeki said. And "to someone who finds [rock music] 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."
Beautiful music seemed to spur the brain's center more quickly than did art, and each medium also activated its respective sensory regions (auditory and visual).
But visual art seemed to have a special effect on the brain. In addition to the medial orbitofrontal cortex, beautiful paintings also triggered the caudate nucleus, which has been linked to feelings of romantic love. This biological connection provides "an interesting neural commentary on the traditional emphasis made in world literature on the relationship between love and beauty," the researchers noted in their paper.
The parallels with previous findings about the medial orbitofrontal cortex suggest that there might be "an intimate link in the cortical processing that is linked to value, desire and beauty," the researchers wrote.
Zeki and his co-author, Tomohiro Ishizu hasten to add that compositions frequently considered beautiful might indeed share common attributes (symmetry, balance, harmony, etc.). And they don't propose to have solved that centuries-old discussion: "what these characteristics are has been, and continues to be, a subject of debate," they wrote.
But what about the paintings and strains of music participants found ugly? Those experiences spurred action in the somatomotor cortex and the amygdala, suggesting that the brain has very different processes for different types of evaluation (positive versus negative). And art and music that subjects were indifferent to didn't make any big splashes in the brain images.
Image of Roses in a Glass Vase by Edouard Manet courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Robert Gordon/Andrew Forge