Beauty is in the Brain of the Beholder

Ana Roibu

Ever since ancient times, people have been fascinated by beauty and everything that is considered to be aesthetically pleasing. Whether in art, architecture, nature, or fashion, people’s taste and preferences have always been varied. For something to be considered ‘beautiful,’ it usually needs to spark interest, emotions or even controversy.

Neuroaesthetics is a new and exciting field of neuroscience that looks at how the brain perceives art, music, and all aesthetics experiences at a neurological level. Evolutionary research has shown that humans have good adaptive reasons to respond to beauty. These are different depending on what the object in question is. On one hand, the most occurring example is likely the strong influence that physical and facial beauty have in many aspects of sexual selection. On the other hand, the beauty experienced in landscapes is drawn from aspects of natural selection. It was Charles Darwin who stated the difference between sexual and natural selection. Sexual selection “depends on the advantage which certain individuals have over other individuals of the same sex and species, in exclusive relation to reproduction.” Additionally, natural selection is defined as “the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring.”

Renowned cognitive psychologist, Vilayanur Ramachandran, has stated that the arts succeed because “they involve deliberate overstatement, exaggeration, and distortion designed to pique our curiosity and produce a satisfying emotional response in our brains.” His eight laws of aesthetical appreciation provide a framework for understanding aspects of visual art, aesthetics and design. The brain areas which have been found to be linked to the processing of visual aesthetics are found in the visual centres, especially the V1 cortex. After the signals arrive from the V1 cortex, they are then distributed to the more specialised areas of the brain. To this day, there has not been one single area identified to be responsible for the perception of aesthetics. It is a more complex neural network where this occurs. In this network, there are many parallel multistage processing systems, each focusing on one simple task, for example, motion or color. Because of the differences between beauty influenced by sexual or natural selection and lack of a single area known to influence the perception of beauty, it is clear that beauty is truly in the eyes and brain of the beholder.

Kawabata Hideaki, Zeki Semir (2004). “Neural Correlates of Beauty”. Journal of Neurophysiology.

Ramachandran, V.S.; Hirstein, William (1999). “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience” (PDF). Journal of Consciousness Studies

Zeki Semir (2001). “Artistic Creativity and the Brain”. Science.

Edited by: Karen Yun, Kaitlyn Springate, and Shreya Singireddy