"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Beauty found to activate same brain area whether it’s visual or auditory

July 6, 2011
Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust
and World Science staff

A re­gion at the front of the brain “lights up” when we ex­pe­ri­ence beau­ty in art or mu­sic, new re­search in­di­cates. The stu­dy, pub­lished June 6 in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One, sug­gests that the one char­ac­ter­is­tic all works of art have in com­mon is that they lead to ac­ti­vity in that re­gion of the brain.

“The ques­tion of wheth­er there are char­ac­ter­is­tics that rend­er ob­jects beau­ti­ful has been de­bat­ed for mil­len­nia by artists and phi­loso­phers of art but with­out an ad­e­quate con­clu­sion,” said neuro­bi­ol­o­gist Semir Zeki of Uni­vers­ity Col­lege Lon­don. “So too has the ques­tion of wheth­er we have an ab­stract sense of beau­ty, that is to say one which arouses in us the same pow­er­ful emo­tion­al ex­pe­ri­ence re­gard­less of wheth­er its source is, for ex­am­ple, mu­sical or vis­u­al. It was time for neuro­bi­ol­o­gy to tack­le these fun­da­men­tal ques­tions.”

Twen­ty-one vol­un­teers from dif­fer­ent cul­tures and eth­nic back­grounds rat­ed a se­ries of paint­ings or ex­cerpts of mu­sic as beau­ti­ful, indif­fer­ent or ug­ly. They then viewed these pic­tures or lis­tened to the mu­sic while ly­ing in a func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing, or fMRI, scan­ner, which meas­ures brain ac­ti­vity.

Zeki and col­league To­mo­hiro Ishizu found that an ar­ea at the front of the brain known as the me­di­al orbito-frontal cor­tex, part of the pleas­ure and re­ward cen­tre of the brain, was more ac­tive in peo­ple as they paid at­ten­tion to a piece of mu­sic or pic­ture they had pre­vi­ously rat­ed as beau­ti­ful. No par­tic­u­lar brain re­gion cor­re­lat­ed gen­er­ally with art­work pre­vi­ously rat­ed ug­ly, though the ex­pe­ri­ence of vis­u­al ug­li­ness as con­trasted with that of beau­ty did cor­re­late with ac­tiva­t­ion in some re­gions.

The me­di­al orbito-frontal cor­tex has pre­vi­ously been linked to ap­precia­t­ion of beau­ty, but this is the first time sci­en­tists have shown that the same ar­ea is ac­tivated for both vis­u­al and au­di­to­ry beau­ty in the same peo­ple, Zeki said. This im­plies, he added, that beau­ty in­deed ex­ists as an ab­stract con­cept with­in the brain.

The me­di­al orbito-frontal cor­tex was­n’t the only re­gion ac­tivated by beau­ty, he not­ed: un­sur­pris­ing­ly, the vis­u­al cor­tex, which re­sponds to vis­u­al stim­u­li, was more ac­tive when view­ing a paint­ing than when lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, and vi­ce versa for the au­di­to­ry cor­tex. But par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing was that ac­ti­vity in an­oth­er re­gion, the cau­date nu­cle­us, near the cen­ter of the brain, in­creased in pro­por­tion to a paint­ing’s rel­a­tive beau­ty. The cau­date nu­cle­us has been re­ported pre­vi­ously to cor­re­late with ro­mantic love, sug­gest­ing a neu­ral cor­re­late for the rela­t­ion­ship be­tween beau­ty and love, Zeki said.

“Al­most an­y­thing can be con­sid­ered art, but we ar­gue that only crea­t­ions whose ex­pe­ri­ence cor­re­lates with ac­ti­vity in the me­di­al orbito-frontal cor­tex would fall in­to the clas­sifica­t­ion of beau­ti­ful art,” he added.

“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.”

Zeki was the re­cip­i­ent of a £1mil­lion Well­come Trust Stra­te­gic Award in 2007 to es­tab­lish a re­search pro­gram in the new field of “neu­roaes­thet­ics” in search of the neu­ral and bi­o­log­i­cal ba­sis for cre­ati­vity, beau­ty and love. The re­search brings to­geth­er sci­ence, the arts and phi­los­o­phy to try to an­swer fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about what it means to be hu­man.

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A region at the front of the brain “lights up” when we experience beauty in art or music, new research indicates. The study, published June 6 in the research journal PLoS One, suggests that the one characteristic that all works of art, whatever their nature, have in common is that they lead to activity in that same region of the brain. “The question of whether there are characteristics that render objects beautiful has been debated for millennia by artists and philosophers of art but without an adequate conclusion,” said neurobiologist Semir Zeki of University College London. “So too has the question of whether we have an abstract sense of beauty, that is to say one which arouses in us the same powerful emotional experience regardless of whether its source is, for example, musical or visual. It was time for neurobiology to tackle these fundamental questions.” Twenty-one volunteers from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds rated a series of paintings or excerpts of music as beautiful, indifferent or ugly. They then viewed these pictures or listened to the music while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scanner, which measures brain activity. Zeki and colleague Tomohiro Ishizu found that an area at the front of the brain known as the medial orbito-frontal cortex, part of the pleasure and reward centre of the brain, was more active in people as they paid attention to a piece of music or picture they had previously rated as beautiful. No particular brain region correlated generally with artwork previously rated ugly, though the experience of visual ugliness as contrasted with that of beauty did correlate with activation in some regions. The medial orbito-frontal cortex has previously been linked to appreciation of beauty, but this is the first time scientists have shown that the same area is activated for both visual and auditory beauty in the same people, Zeki said. This implies, he added, that beauty indeed exists as an abstract concept within the brain. The medial orbito-frontal cortex wasn’t the only region activated by beauty, he noted: unsurprisingly, the visual cortex, which responds to visual stimuli, was more active when viewing a painting than when listening to music, and vice versa for the auditory cortex. But particularly interesting was that activity in another region, the caudate nucleus, near the center of the brain, increased in proportion to a painting’s relative beauty. The caudate nucleus has been reported previously to correlate with romantic love, suggesting a neural correlate for the relationship between beauty and love, Zeki said. “Almost anything can be considered art, but we argue that only creations whose experience correlates with activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex would fall into the classification of beautiful art,” he added. “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.” Zeki was the recipient of a £1million Wellcome Trust Strategic Award in 2007 to establish a research program in the new field of “neuroaesthetics” in search of the neural and biological basis for creativity, beauty and love. The research brings together science, the arts and philosophy to try to answer fundamental questions about what it means to be human.