Beauty is in the brain of the beholder

This post is also available in Dutch.

Some say that taste is not to be discussed. Is that truly the case? Neuroscience shows that the subjective is perfectly measurable.

Do you listen to music on your way to work? Are there paintings on the walls of your living room? Have you ever been awed by a sunset? Or have you slowed down to glance at an attractive stranger? All of these are instances of aesthetic appreciation – judgments that we make about the pleasantness and beauty of something or someone. Humans engage in hundreds of such evaluations regularly as triggered by different sensory experiences (e.g. visual, auditory, etc.).

For centuries, philosophers have debated on what beauty actually is. Even more so, various thinkers have pondered about whether or not there is an objective way to measure beauty. For example, the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, thought that beauty has nothing to do with science. Indeed, we often say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” when referring to how aesthetic evaluations vary from person to person. You might tap your feet to a certain song, while your friend might swiftly skip it in favor of the next one. 

The idea that each person has a different taste immediately begs the conclusion that judgements of beauty are difficult to quantify because they are so inconsistent across individuals—or so we would think, if not for the research done in the area of Neuroaesthetics. It is becoming apparent that the subjective feelings of beauty experienced through listening to a music piece or looking at a painting are perfectly measurable using neuroscientific methods. With brain imaging we can see which brain areas become active when a person is awed by an artwork and quantify the amount of activity in those areas.

Is there a relationship between what a person says is beautiful and the activity in his/her brain? Interestingly enough, aesthetic appraisals can be pinned down to the activity of a particular brain area: the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC). The more the mOFC lights up, the stronger the perceived beauty of a piece of art, be it visual or musical. The mOFC is also the area of the brain that is implicated in emotions. This is not surprising; perceiving pieces of art typically leads to strong emotions.

One should, however, not jump to the conclusion that the perceived experience of beauty arises from the activity of a sole brain area. As is typically the case, particular experiences arise from different brain areas working in concert. But what is indeed interesting is that the brain seemingly does not make a distinction between the many sources of beauty. In other words, if something is deemed beautiful, it does not matter whether it is a song, painting or some ordinary object. This means that there is a common neural system that drives aesthetic responses to anything ranging from Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 to Duchamp’s Urinal.

Neuroscience has made it possible to begin to dispel the “beauty cannot be quantified” myth. For the first time, the neural system supporting aesthetic responses can be localized. Although Neuroaesthetics is still in its very beginnings, it is quite exciting to see that we now have the tools to explain something that has always seemed out of reach for a proper explanation.

Written by Julija Vaitonytė

Edited by João Guimarães and Christienne Gonzales Damatac

Translated by Floortje Bouwkamp and Rowena Emaus

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