Neuroscience locates the brain’s beauty spot as it gets arty for the first time

by Alex Benady

The clue lies in the name: Neuroscience. It tends to be located in laboratories. But this week for possibly the first time, Neuroscience has found itself in an art gallery with the launch of a month long festival of Neuroscience at the Barbican in London.

The collaboration between The Barbican and The Wellcome Trust is called ‘Wonder’. Unfortunately given its gallery location, the festival sheds little light on the one question you might think it would address: how does the brain deal with beauty?

It’s an issue we give a lot of time to at Coley Porter Bell. ‘Beauty’, which we think of as ‘outer signals of healthy inner function’, lies at the heart of what we do as a company. In fact we think it lies at the heart of what we do in the brand design industry. Or any design discipline come to that. Arguably it’s our core competence.

One question we have always found intriguing is the relationship between different types of beauty? A sunset or natural scene can be said to beautiful. So can a face, a symphony, an equation and even a piece of packaging. But how can it be that the emotions I experience when I hear a Beethoven sonata, are related to the feelings I experience when looking at Beyonces face?

Can they really the same thing? And why should they be the same thing? Wonder at The Barbican isn’t going to tell us. So we approached a leading neuroscientist and asked him ourselves.

Dr Tomohiro Ishizu from University College London is one of the world’s leading experts on the brain and beauty. In one experiment he watched the brains of 21 volunteers as they looked at 30 paintings and listened to 30 musical excerpts while lying in an fMRI scanner. The subjects were asked to score each piece as “beautiful”, “indifferent” or “ugly”.

The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones. The more they felt something was beautiful, the more activation in this area of the brain. It was the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC, part of the pleasure and reward centre of the brain.

It was more active in subjects when they listened to a piece of music or viewed a picture that they had previously rated as beautiful. By contrast, no particular region of the brain correlated generally with artwork rated ‘ugly’.

The study didn’t specifically mention other forms of beauty –such as a face or mathematical equations. So we asked Dr Ishizu whether the mOFC responds to all forms of beauty. His answer was that “Yes the mOFC does respond when viewing ‘beautiful’ bodies or faces.”

But that doesn’t mean that we respond in exactly the same way to different types of beauty. The MOFC is merely the common factor. “In addition to the mOFC, some other brain regions are also active,” he explains. Which, depends upon the nature of the stimulus.

So when looking at a face, the regions which are known to be selectively active with bodies and faces, come into play, as does the hypothalamus which is also known to be activated by sexual arousal. ‘Beautiful’ music activates the mOFC but also co-activates the auditory cortex. “So we would say, so far, that each kind of beauty has its own ‘system’ or ‘network’, but the mOFC alone is always active in all kinds of beauty,” concludes Dr Ishizu.

In layman’s language, the medial orbitofrontal cortex is the brain’s beauty spot. ENDS


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