Understanding beauty.

Can the perception that people have of works of art be explained by neuroscience? A perspective piece published in PLoS Biology last month by Bevil R. Conway and Alexander Rehding tackles this interesting question1.

Femme accoudée à la table

. Femme accoudée à la table (1893), by Eugène Carrière

Photo from Wikipédia, in the public domain.

There is increasing interest in recent years for neurohumanities, the neurobiological investigation of scientific problems that are related to things that would normally be of interest to humanists including history, anthropology and art. There has been for many centuries a traditional boundary between the disciplines of hard sciences (physics, biology) and the disciplines of humanities (social sciences, history, anthropology). In the end it would make sense that academics in those fields should be interested in any knowledge from the other disciplines that might help them address their question of interest. It is thus reasonable to expect that these boundaries should tend toward abolition. Neurohumanities are one attempt at abolishing those boundaries. Researchers in that field are interested in finding the physical basis of human behaviors that influence our culture, history and art. Art is a particularly difficult subject as the appreciation of a work of art is one of the most subjective things of all. Sure there are many other things that are also subjective (think about our love of ice cream), but there is some objective measure by which liking ice cream makes sense. Ice cream = sugar and fat = energy = survival. It often seems like art escapes any such simplistic equation.

Will we find the key to the attractiveness of works of art in the brain mechanisms that operate as we look at those? My personal take is that it does have to be in the brain, but we’re still very far from understanding the details of the neural mechanisms that underlie our subjective experience of beauty. One has to appreciate the limits of the current technologies in visualizing brain activity, particularly in humans, to see how hard it is right now to understand the brain processes underlying such a complex process. One of the most advanced and widespread measure available in humans is Functional magnetic resonance imaging, but even that just gives us a broad view of brain activities through an indirect measure – that of blood oxygenation in different parts of the brain. It tells us whether some pieces of brains (called voxels, from 1 mm to 5 mm size) have been using oxygen from the blood and from this we can reasonably expect that neurons in this area have been more active. Leaving aside the difficulties that are related to this assumption, the fact is that brain activities operate at a much smaller scale – to actually understand how neural circuits operate you’d have to zoom in into a voxel and view the activity of the millions of neurons that each of them contain.

There are also time limits. You cannot leave someone in a fMRI scanner for 10 hours, because the subjects get tired, they start feeling the need to move and you end up with subjects that are not looking at the experiment. Because these techniques often require many repetitions (dozens up to hundreds) before the machine can detect changes in brain activities, you generally don’t want to make the subjects view a full-length version of the Titanic movie. This thus limits the type and quantity of works of art that can be displayed.

Those are not reasons to give up research in that field – but it should certainly encourage everyone to remain modest as to our current state of knowledge of the brain mechanisms underlying our appreciation of art. Some studies have found a brain area that seems to correlate systematically with art appreciation, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)2. This is not surprising as this area seems to be activated by a lot of things that people like – money, food, photos. However, as pointed out by the authors of the review, it would be unlikely that this region by itself handles the whole subjective experience of beauty. They quote some studies made on people with injuries affecting the OFC showing that these patients have impaired cognitive processes but no apparent change in the perception of beauty – although to my knowledge the question has not been explored in-depth with these patients.

I agree with the authors that many fields of investigation in neuroscience will ultimately contribute to understanding neuroesthetics – it will be important to evaluate specific aspect of works of art such as visual arrangements within it, how it draws the attention of observers, the emotions it induces, the structure of the story it tells, etc… I also think, and as a social neuroethologist I might be biased here, that social interactions are to be considered in at least two ways. Firstly, the subjective experience of beauty might drive people to communicate it to others. It might be an emotional drive to share nice findings with others around us. Secondly, any work of art is at first the creation of someone, the artist, and as people view those works they are not simply looking at an object but at an object created by someone to communicate something. I think that those aspects will be important to consider if we want to fully understand how people experience art.

Until we get there, there is currently an impressive international effort at improving our understanding of how the brain makes us perceive language, symbols, music, and visual scenes. This includes research groups such as the BRAMS, the Neurohumanities research group and researchers such as Stanislas Dehaene. You can find some more references on the subject at the Wikipedia page on neuroesthetics.


1. Bevil R. Conway, Alexander Rehding (2013) Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty PLoS Biology 11: e1001504. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001504.

2. Ishizu T, Zeki S (2011) Toward a brain-based theory of beauty. PLoS ONE 6: e21852. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021852.

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