A region at the front of the brain ‘lights up’ when we experience beauty in a piece of art or a musical excerpt, according to new research funded by the Wellcome Trust. The study, published today in the open access 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, and goes some way to supporting the views of David Hume and others that beauty lies in the beholder rather than in the object.
“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,” says Professor Semir Zeki from the Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology at UCL (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 whilst lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures activity in the brain.
Professor Zeki and colleague Dr 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 subjects when they listened to a piece of music or viewed a picture which they had previously rated as beautiful. By contrast, no particular region of the brain correlated generally with artwork previously rated ‘ugly,’ though the experience of visual ugliness when contrasted with the experience of beauty did correlate with activation in a number of regions.