By Emma Young
Audrey Hepburn’s face and Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Darcy Bussell dancing the role of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. All of these things, and more, are widely regarded as looking beautiful. Do we have, then, a “beauty centre” in the brain that responds to something that we find visually beautiful, no matter what it is? For almost two decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have been exploring this question, without reaching a consensus. Now a new meta-analysis of existing fMRI studies on almost 1,000 people concludes that no, our brains don’t have one “beauty centre” — but two.
Hu Chuan-Peng at Tsinghua University, China, led the study, published in Cognitive, Affective & Behavioural Neuroscience. The team identified 49 studies that involved whole brain analyses of young and middle-aged people (aged 18 – 50), none of whom were art experts. Some of these studies focused on responses to human faces, while others looked at reactions to art, including paintings, sculpture, visual textures, dance videos and architectural space. In all cases, fMRI was used to image the brains of the participants, who also made aesthetic judgements, or at least rated how much they liked or disliked a given stimulus.
Using a technique called “activation likelihood estimation” (ALE) meta-analysis, the team searched for any crossover between the studies in patterns of brain activity while participants viewed stimuli that they judged to be beautiful.
This analysis revealed that beautiful faces triggered greater activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and adjacent pregenual anterior cingulate cortex and also the left ventral striatum, compared with faces rated as being not beautiful. However, this wasn’t the case for art. Beautiful visual art was associated with more activity not in these regions but in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex (aMPFC).
What might explain those different response patterns? The ventral striatum is already known to be a key part of the brain’s reward pathway, so the team thinks that the structure responds to the rewarding value of a beautiful face. This signal, along with other information, is then integrated into the vmPFC, to generate the positive feeling associated with perceiving facial beauty.
Beautiful faces, then, seem to be more like “primary rewards”, similar to food and sexual contact — rewards that benefit our (or our genes’) survival and which are inherently pleasurable. Viewing beautiful art is, though, more like getting money: a “secondary reward”, or something that we have learned to find pleasurable. As such, it’s handled differently in the brain — it’s perceived as being beautiful due to high-level, top-down processing in the aMPFC. (Earlier work has found an involvement for the aMPFC in secondary rewards, the team notes.)
It’s perhaps worth noting that what this new study can’t do — and was not designed to do — is contribute to the ongoing debate about the extent to which beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The team’s meta-analysis revealed similarities in how people across the studies process “beautiful” vs “not beautiful” faces and visual art, but what was beautiful, or not, was judged by each individual. Neither, of course, can the study shed light on how we process non-visual beauty — such as “beautiful” music, for example. Further research will be necessary to reveal how this fits in; perhaps we have yet more “beauty centres”.
Still, debate about the nature of beauty goes back millennia. Plato wrote of a “common and abstract beauty” that is independent of the various forms of beautiful things, an idea that is still entertained today. This new study suggests that this is not the way our brains see things: we don’t perceive an “essence” of beauty in all manner of objects, but rather respond to at least two distinct types.