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.
Social isolation and fears for our family and friends, as well as ourselves, have all affected psychological wellbeing during the COVID-19 lockdown. But being unable to visit an art gallery, theatre or live music venues may also have taken its toll. According to new research by Peter Todderdell at the University of Sheffield and Giulia Poerio at the University Essex, such experiences contribute to wellbeing in a way that watching a sporting event, for example, does not. The pair’s new paper, published in Emotion, presents the first longitudinal examination of the effect of engaging with the “artistic imagination” — rather than actively taking part in an artistic endeavour — on wellbeing.
Photo: The serif font Jubilat was used on signs for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid — though a new study suggests that sans serifs are generally seen as more liberal. Credit: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images.
Fonts can be very distinctive indeed. Even if robbed of their original context, it can be easy to identify the fonts used on the front of a Harry Potter book, adorning a Star Wars poster, or on the side of a Coca-Cola can, to name a few examples.
But particular fonts can also leave us with other impressions: the font used to brand a beloved book, for example, has different emotional connotations to the one you use to type emails. And according to new research in Communication Studies from Katherine Haenschen and Daniel Tamul at Virginia Tech, particular fonts may also carry some political connotations, too.
Picture yourself sitting in a Zen garden, surrounded by low, rounded bushes and gravel raked into rippling swirls. Now imagine standing in front of a brutalist building, all straight lines and sharp edges. If you think you’d feel more relaxed in the Zen garden, there could be a low-level perceptual reason — one that could explain everything from why you’re far more likely to find a jagged script on the cover of a death metal album than on a romance novel, to why clouds and lullabies seem to go together.
The new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that we automatically associate variations in one particular property of images or sounds with variations in levels of emotional arousal. This gives us an instinctive understanding, just from the tone of someone’s voice or watching their movements, of whether they are angry or sad, excited or calm. But it seems that these associations between perception and emotion are so automatic and fundamental that we apply them to inanimate objects, as well.
Philosophers and mathematicians have long held that maths can be aesthetically pleasing. “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty,” wrote Bertrand Russell, while Carl Friedrich Gauss proclaimed that “The enchanting charms of this sublime science reveal themselves in all their beauty only to those who have the courage to go deeply into it”.
But a study published recently in Cognition suggests that even those whose lives don’t revolve around logic and numbers also have an appreciation for mathematical “beauty”. People tend to see similarities between mathematical proofs and certain paintings or pieces of music, the study finds, suggesting we all share an intuition for the aesthetics of mathematics.