“Beauty is not a quality of things themselves: it exists only in the mind who contemplates it.” -David Hume What is “beauty?” Is it defined by the symmetry of your face, is it your age, colour, body shape? Or is it defined by what you see through the media or popular culture. Is it defined by the “feeling of the heart”? Let us think about a picture, a beautiful painting that we love or a beautiful face. How do you feel? Why are some images more attractive than others? Is beauty objective? What stimulates our emotional systems in front of an image considered beautiful and what actually happens in our brain? The appreciation of beauty evoked when some- one is faced with a painting of Velazquez, the colours of Van Gogh, the classic representations of Botticelli, the harmonious force in the music of Beethoven, or the grandiose architecture of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, requires a high degree of visual and auditory consciousness, and a refined education in sensory perception. Beauty can also be evoked beyond the sensory world in ideas: a physicist could speak of the beauty of the general theory of relativity and a mathematician could speak of beauty while admiring a formula. Beauty is all around us. It graces the cover of magazines, influences the shape of almost everything from your shirt to your car to the chair you are probably sitting in right now. Indeed, all these reflexes and emotions that we tend to attribute to beauty are nothing more than a response of particular areas in our brain. The investigation of the neuronal structures involved in the fruition of art and beauty is the object of the new branch of neuroscience called “neuroaesthetics”, a term coined by the neurobiologist Semir Zeki.
Zeki likes to explain the real sense of “beauty” using the definition of Edmund Burke: “Beauty is property of objects, acting mechanically upon human mind to the intervention of the senses.” “I think that people make a great mistake when they talk about beauty either belonging to the brain or belonging to the word outside the brain,” Zeki explains. “Beauty belongs to both”. It follows that our knowledge of the external world is dependent on what our brain makes us believe: we can never know the world as it is, but only as it seems to us. Beauty is a very personal experience that can differ depending on time, culture, traditions, etc. It is in the eye of the beholder: the intensity with which it is perceived is determined by the observing brain. The research on neuro-aesthetic mechanisms of the brain is focused on this specific activation of the viewer’s brain structures. In front of a work of art, the perception of beauty and ugliness is a personal choice based on subjective emotions: the right amygdala is activated in front of what one considers beautiful (the medial frontal orbit bark reacts more to beautiful stimuli than to ugly or neutral ones); if, on the other hand, our judgment is negative, the left motor cortex is activated. There is a neuronal basis for the perception of artistic beauty, which happens to be the same for the beauty of the faces. When someone looks at a painting, mirror neurons are activated, which allow us to perceive, experience, and replicate actions or emotions belonging to others. It has been ascertained that portraits activate the facial-recognition area of the fusiform gyrus while landscapes stimulate the area for recognition of places in the para-hippocampal site.
Art also activates the reward circuit of the brain. A visual aesthetic experience can also affect the areas of the ventral visual cortex, where opioid μ receptors, typically involved in pleasant sensations, allow us to make a judgment of appreciation. The increased neuronal activity of the ventral tegmental area causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the ventral striatum and in the caudate nucleus (a component of the reward system.) This provokes the pleasure we experience from the artistic works. Faced with beautiful images, the orbitofrontal cortex, the cingulate cortex, and the insula are also activated. Activation is seen in the orbitofrontal cortex when falling in love, too. The cingulate and the frontal cortices also react to other sources of pleasure such as music and architecture. Beauty does not really exist in the artistic work; beauty is genuine and personal, created by those who contemplate the artwork. In other words, the beholder would actively create in his brain his own conception of beauty which would involve knowledge, an abstraction or idea, emotion and pleasure. If beauty could be seen as an objective property, everyone would perceive it in the same way. The reality is the opposite: there is no universal agreement on what is considered excellence in beauty. The aesthetic experience is accompanied by emotions related to the perception of something that the subject evaluates as beautiful. This is why we distinguish between a careful, cognitive, and affective moment within the aesthetic experience. The careful moment is established when we are attracted by the aesthetic experience and this involvement create in us the interest and curiosity of understand it. The affective moment is the precise instant when we are able to completely comprehend the experience, thanks to the mirror neurons and the empathy they produce in us; is this moment the aesthetic experience provokes a response in our brain. The cognitive component is the most problematic part in describing an aesthetic experience. Cognition, as defined by the philosophy Immanuel Kant in his “Critique of Pure Reason,” has two sources: the receptiveness of impressions and the spontaneity of concepts that is attributed to the faculty of understanding. Following Kant’ reasoning, the aesthetic experience provokes joy in the subjects, regardless of what we know about it. We cannot explain exactly why we like a particular object. This is why he states that “beauty is what, without a concept, is universally loved”.
The universality of judgment on beauty among human beings is, according to Kant, guaranteed by the fact that the sensation of pleasure from the perception of beauty is common to all human beings. It affects us all in the same way, it activates the same part of our brain in all humans beings. Semir Zeki refers directly to Kant’s thoughts and suggests that what Kant means by “mind” (as a disposition to know reality) can be understood as a brain. According to Zeki, “all knowledge is knowledge of the brain.” The main difference between him and Kant is that while Kant assumes that the idea of beauty is independent of all previous experiences, Zeki believes that “our concept of what is beautiful changes when we see more and more objects or situations, or how we find in different cultural environments.” “I think we have an inclination to beauty,” Zeki explains, “and this propensity is almost genetically determined.” For Zeki we are animal with an innate pretension to what is beautiful. From Plato and his math theory, to Monet and his abstract painting, to Galvani and his scientific work: we all are in search of beauty in our lives.
Zeki’s example is mathematics which, for him, is the higher form of beauty used to understand the universe and the nature. However, math is beautiful only for us. Math makes sense, but only to our logical system, to our brain. An animal would never be able to understand a mathematical equation. This originates from the fact that we are evolved creatures capable of understanding beauty and, more importantly, attracted to it. This depends from a more developed brain that is capable of comprehending, appreciating and creating what is beautiful. An example is sexual reproduction: animals are not lead by attraction or beauty when they sexually reproduce, they are only guided by their natural and biological instinct, as the choice of the partner makes no difference. Contrarily, we are pushed to “fall in love” and reproduce with whom we consider attractive or “beautiful”.
Beauty, something so central to our lives, depends on activations of particular brain areas. Beauty is essential to our lives. Beauty is not inside of what is considered beautiful, but is only in the eye of the beholder: in the different brain areas belonging to each one of us. Thus, the developing field of neuro-aesthetics is striving to understand what structures in the brain correlate to our individualized perception of beauty.
illustrated by Annabel Adams
Categories: Review

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