An interesting article published in the Scientific American this month looked at this fascinating concept. 

Beauty is elusive – it is sought in nature, art and philosophy, but also in design such as our phones and furniture.  It is valued beyond reason.  We try to surround ourselves with it and lose ourselves in pursuit of it.  

The philosopher George Santayana observed in his 1896 book The Sense of Beauty that there is within us “a very radical and widespread tendency to observe beauty, and to value it”.  

Philosophers have tried for centuries to understand beauty and scientists have tried to study it.  Science cannot yet tell us what beauty is, but maybe it can tell us where it is and where it is not.

A recent study by researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing examined the origin of beauty and argued that it is as enigmatic in our brain as it is in the real world. 

So what part of our brain responds to beauty?  The answer depends on whether we see beauty as a single category at all.  Brain scientists who favour the idea of such a beauty centre have hypothesised that it may live in the orbitofrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the insula. 

If this theory prevails, then beauty could be traced back to a single region in the brain.  In this case, beauty could be experienced in the same way whether we were listening to a Franz Schubert song or looking at the Mona Lisa.  

The Tsinghua University researchers opted to do a meta-analysis.  They pooled data from many already published studies to see if a consistent result emerged.  The team first combed the literature for all brain imaging studies that investigated people’s neural responses to visual art and faces and that also asked them to report on whether they were seen as beautiful or not.  

After reviewing the different studies, the researchers were left with data from
49 studies in total, representing experiments from 982 participants. 

The faces and visual art were taken to be different kinds of beautiful things, and this allowed for a conceptually straightforward testing of the beauty centre hypothesis. 

If transcendent, beauty was really something common to faces and visual art and was processed in the Beauty region of the brain, then this area should show up across studies, regardless of the specific things being seen as beautiful. 

 If no such region was found then faces and visual art would be more likely to be as parents say of their children, each beautiful in its own way.  

The technique used to analyse the pool data is known as activation likelihood estimation, ALE.  ALE took each of the 49 studies to be a fuzzy, error prone report of a specific location in the brain.

The particular spot that lit up when the experiment was conducted, together with a surrounding cloud of uncertainty.  The size of this cloud of uncertainty was large if the study had few participants and small if there were many of them, does modelling the confidence that comes from collecting more data.

These 49 points and the clouds were then all merged into a composite statistical map, giving an integrated picture of the brain activation across many studies and a means to seeing how confident they were in consensus across experiments. 

If a single small region was glowing red hot after the merge (all clouds are small and close together) that would mean it was reliably activated across all the different studies.  

Performing this analysis, the research team found that beautiful visual art and beautiful faces each reliably elicited activity in a well-defined brain region.  Clearly, it is hoped that the brain is doing something when you are looking at a visual stimulus.  

The regions were almost completely none overlapping, however, which challenged the idea that the human beauty centre was activated.  If we take this at face value, then the beauty of a face is not the same as the beauty of a painting.  Beauty is plural, diverse, embedded in the particulars of its medium.  

It is possible the hypothesised beauty centre actually does exist and just failed to show up for a variety of methodological reasons and this one analysis hardly settles a question as profound and as difficult as this one, yet this raises an important point: 

  1. What are we trying to look for here? 
  2. Does it matter that beauty is one thing in the brain or 10?
  3. Does having 10 centres make beauty 10 times more marvellous or diminish it to tenfold? 
  4. The question is, do we understand beauty differently if we know where to point to it in the brain?

Dr Paul Ettlinger


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