Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty (Ishizu & Zeki, 2011)

Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki recently published a paper entitled “Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty” in the open access journal PLoS ONE. Their main objective was to determine whether there are common neural mechanisms underlying the appreciation of beauty in visual and auditory stimuli. In order to do so, they asked 21 volunteers to rate 30 paintings and 30 musical fragments, presented for 16 seconds, on a 1 to 9 beauty scale while their brain activity was being scanned by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Stimuli receiving ratings between 1 and 3 were classified as ugly, those between 4 and 6 were classified as indifferent, and those between 7 and 9 were classified as beautiful.

Their results revealed that rating the beauty of painting and music was related with activity in several brain areas. However, there was a single common region that was more active while people viewed or listened to stimuli they regarded as beautiful than the rest. This brain region was located in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). Their analysis showed that neural activity in this region increased, almost linearly, with the beauty scores awarded to paintings and musical fragments. This relation is clearly visible in their figure 2, shown here:

The authors aimed to ascertain whether the mOFC region involved in judging the beauty of paintings and music excerpts was actually the same, so they performed a conjunction analysis. As shown in the next figure, their analysis revealed a specific region of the mOFC (in yellow) that is more active while engaging with stimuli, whether visual or auditory, regarded by the participants as beautiful. The authors refer to it as subdivision A1 of the mOFC.

Ishizu and Zeki (2011) have addressed the important and pressing issue of differences and similarities in the neural underpinnings of the experience of the beauty of stimuli belonging to different sensory modalities. They should also be commended for attempting to bridge the scientific and humanistic approaches to aesthetics. The authors discuss their results in light of the work of philosophers and art theorists. Specifically, they build upon Edmund Burke’s physiological perspective by proposing that “all works that appear beautiful to a subject have a single brain-based characteristic, which is that they have as a correlate of experiencing them a change in strength of activity within the mOFC and, more specifically, within field A1 in it” (Ishizu & Zeki, 2011, p. 8). I fear, however, that few humanists will be sympathetic to their reductionist brain-based theory of beauty.

Also, even though later in the paper Ishizu and Zeki (2011) “broaden [their] neurobiological definition of beauty given above to include not only activation of mOFC but also its co-activation with sensory areas that feed it” (Ishizu & Zeki, 2011, p. 9), I get the impression from reading their work that the authors regard mOFC subdivision A1 as a sort of beauty detector, downplaying the role of other brain regions and assigning it a very specific role in the experience of beauty. Previous neuroimaging studies, however, have demonstrated that a number of other brain regions are involved in the appreciation of beauty (Nadal & Pearce, 2011). Moreover, the important role of cognitive processes related with perception, memory, emotion, expectations and decision-making is widely recognized today. In fact, the interaction among these processes is the essence of psychological and neuroscientific models of beauty appreciation (Chatterjee, 2004; Leder et al., 2004).

From this interactionist perspective, the experience of beauty cannot be equated with increases in the activity of any given brain region. Rather, it is viewed as the result of the interaction among brain regions related with processes perception, memory, reward, and so on. Ishizu and Zeki’s (2011) significant contribution has shown that some of these regions are involved in the appreciation of the beauty of both paintings and music. The kind of brain-based theory of beauty that we need today, however, is one that can clarify how beauty emerges from the activity of a network of broadly distributed brain regions, and how certain personal and environmental factors modulate activity in those regions and the mutual interactions among them.

Chatterjee A. 2004. Prospects for a Cognitive Neuroscience of Visual Aesthetics. Bulletin of Psychology of the Arts 4:55-60.

Ishizu, T. & Zeki, S. (2011) Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE, 6: e21852.  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021852.  [pdf]

Leder H, Belke B, Oeberst A, Augustin D. 2004. A model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments. British Journal of Psychology 95:489-508.

Nadal, M., & Pearce, M. T. (2011). The Copenhagen Neuroaesthetics conference: Prospects and pitfalls for an emerging field. Brain and Cognition, 76, 172–183. [pdf]

Conference report: The Neurosciences and Music IV – Learning and Memory: June 9th to 12th

Recently, the Mariani Foundation (Fondazione Pierfranco e Liuisa Mariani) invited to the fourth edition of their conference on Neurosciences and Music. With their conference – which is organized every third year – the Mariani Foundation aims to promote the dissemination of knowledge in research fields related to neurobiology, physiology, psychology, neuropsychology applied to music, with a strong emphasis on child development issues. Thus, this year, the extensive four-day conference was primarily focused on Learning and Memory. A wealth of fascinating symposia, workshops and poster sessions took place in the city of Edinburgh from the 9th-12th of June 2011. Scientists from all over the world enjoyed a very stimulating scientific program in the impressive venue of Edinburgh Hall and the Hub.

As the overall topic of this conference was the art form “music” and the scientific approaches as to how the human mind and brain perceives, reacts, interacts and may be modified with this perceptual experience, I think a summary of it could be of interest also to those who approach music and other artistic phenomena from a neuroaesthetics point of view. Hence, I’ll give an overview of the main topics discussed during the conference and post some links for further reading for those who are interested. I’ll also briefly summarize some of the conference contributions that I personally found particularly remarkable.

The conference took its starting point in a series of workshops designated to present the state-of-the-arts in the field with regards to experimental, social and real-world methods for studying music, all within a neuroscientific context concerned with the study of Learning and Memory. Furthermore, following the overall scope of the Mariani Foundation, a strong emphasis was also laid on how to approach the neuroscientific study of music-related topics with children, infants and even newborns.

During the first workshop, what mainly caught my attention was the proposal of an experimental protocol for fMRI studies with very young children presented by doctor Nadine Gaab from Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA. After summarizing the main difficulties of using fMRI methodology with children, she proposed a series of guidelines to follow before, during and after the experiment with a child. These guidelines can be downloaded here:  The protocol mainly consists of three phases: (i) task training, (ii) movement prevention training and (iii) the use of presents, certificates etc. as motivators. She also stressed the importance of, firstly, a well-trained staff that uses child friendly concepts in their language such as, for instance „brain-camera“ instead of „scanner“, and secondly, equipment that is clearly child-friendly, such as, for instance, whole hand response devises.

Another particularly fascinating workshop was by professor Sandra Trehub from the Department of Psychology of the University of Toronto, Canada, who made a strong argument for the use of behavioural methods in developmental research, thus, tentatively defeating the neuroscientific scope of the conference. She reminded us of the available behavioural methods such as conditioning, referential listening or eyetracking with newborns and infants. She also pointed out the difficulty of maintaining such young participants’ attention centered in the experimental tasks. In this respect she suggested to accompany studies with additional measures such as heart rate as an indirect measure of attention (HR decreases with attention).

Further workshop contributions rounded off the first day. For me, the most remarkable three -a part from the two mentioned above- were (1) by Stephanie Uibel from the Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, on the project of the “Musikkindergarten”, (2) by Katie Overy from the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), University of Edinburgh, UK, on the role of the phenomena of synchronization and imitation in the shared experience of music making, and, finally, (3) a breathtaking intervention by Nigel Osborne from the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), University of Edinburgh, UK, on the use of music as an intervention tool with children who suffer from the PTSD after traumatic (mostly war) experiences.

Days two, three and four were dedicated to symposia with 4-5 talks each on diverse topics:

SYMPOSIUM I: Mechanisms of rhythm and meter learning over the life span (Chair: Erin Hannon).

SYMPOSIUM II: Impact of musical experience on cerebral language processing (Chair: Mathias Oechslin).

SYMPOSIUM III: Cultural neuroscience of music (Chair: Steven Demorest)

SYMPOSIUM IV: Memory and learning in music performance (Chair: Caroline Palmer, Peter Pfordresher)

SYMPOSIUM V: Mind and brain in musical imagery (Chair: Andrea Halpern & Robert Zatorre)

SYMPOSIUM VI: Plasticity and malplasticity in health and disease (Chair: Eckart Altenmüller)

SYMPOSIUM VII: The role of music in stroke rehabilitation: neural mechanisms and therapeutic techniques (Chair: Takako Fujioka and Teppo Särkämö)

SYMPOSIUM VIII: Music: a window into the world of autism (Catherine Wan)

SYMPOSIUM IX:  Learning and memory in musical disorders (Chair: Psyche Loui & Isabelle Peretz)

Summary coming up soon…

Conference report: Perspectives in Neuroaesthetics, Rome, June 13th. Objective vs. subjective beauties

I love conferences that go straight to the point. Lamberto Maffei, Presidente dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, briefly welcomed us to the Giornata Lincea Golgi, and reminded us that the overarching objective of the Golgi conferences was to integrate sciences and humanities. Ernesto Carafoli, one of our hosts together with Giovanni Berlucchi, didn’t waste time either. He was clear and concise from the start about the conference’s theme: We were there to present and discuss about beauty. “Not solve the matter of what beauty is” – he said, relieving us from a tremendous responsibility – “but to make headway on the specific topic of objective versus subjective beauty”.

The one-day program was packed with very interesting contributions, and we had time to debate several points raised during the discussion. If I had to select my five personal favorite presentations, however, I would choose the following:

  • Elkhonon Goldberg (New York University): How the brain deals with novelty and ambiguities.
  • Cinzia Di Dio (Università di Parma): Neural correlates of aesthetic experience in art.
  • Salvatore Aglioti (Sapienza Università di Roma): The beauty of the body.
  • Daniela Perani (Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milano): Functional and structural connectivity for language and music processing at birth.
  • Jean-Pierre Changeux (Institut Pasteur, Paris): La beauté dans le cerveau: pour une neuroscience de l’art.

Instead of trying to summarize everyone’s presentations, I’ll tell you where you can find first-hand information on these scientists’ contributions. Although you can get a nice sample of this line of Goldberg’s work here, his work is very extensive, so visit his site too. Di Dio’s well-known fMRI experiment on aesthetic experience related with classical statues can be found here. Some of the work Aglioti presented at the conference can be read here. Perani’s very impressive demonstration of functional specializations for music processing in human newborns can be found here. A partial and very brief presentation of Changeux’s views can be accessed here, in his book The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge, and especially in his more recent book Du vrai, du beau, du bien.

Right after Carafoli’s presentation, it dawned on me more clearly than ever that Neuroaesthetics has not only inherited from Philosophical Aesthetics, among other disciplines, some of its questions, but also some of its most ancient entrenched positions and long-lasting controversies. In an enlightening paper, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz (1963) retraces the objective-subjective controversy in aesthetics back to the Pythagoreans and the Sophists. So the question is whether we should expect neuroaesthetics to seek the neural foundations of people’s experience of things that are beautiful in themselves, or of people’s experience of things that they personally consider to be beautiful. Both options are not equivalent. One would entail the recognition of a property of the objects, and the other the construction of personal preference.

As a psychologist trained in Perception and Memory it is difficult for me to accept a purely objectivist stance. Perception is not the passive recording of information out in the environment. James Pomerantz defined perception as “the complex sequence of processes by which we take the information received from our senses and then organize and interpret it, which in turn allows us to see and hear the world around us as meaningful, recognizable objects and events with clear locations in space and time”.

In a sense, thus, perception is a constructive process. Although it does begin with sensory information, it’s purpose is not to render the world as it is, but to provide us with an image that we can understand and is coherent with our prior knowledge about the world. In order to do so, perception is guided by inference, hypotheses, and other top-down processes, as well as context, which can strongly influence the appearance of an object.

Psychologists have illustrated how much perception relies on assumptions and inferences by using illusions to playing tricks on it. One of the many illusions considered by psychologists is the well-known Müller–Lyer illusion. Objectively, both horizontal lines are the same length. Subjectively, though, the top line seems to be longer.

Surprisingly, these illusions, and presumably the assumptions that govern them, are susceptible to learning and other environmental factors, accentuating the importance of the subject and prior experience even in such basic perceptual processes. If people are unable to accurately perceive the objective lengths of the lines above, is it reasonable to expect them to perceive the objective beauty –which presumably amounts to more than line length– of complex an intricate objects, like works of art?

I don’t mean to say that the objective properties are irrelevant. I myself have done work on the effects of object features, such as symmetry and complexity, on people’s aesthetic preferences. However, even Daniel Berlyne, the father of modern empirical aesthetics, acknowledged the organizing and interpretative principles of perception when he wrote that “The collative variables are actually subjective, in the sense that they depend on the relations between physical and statistical properties of stimulus objects and processes within the organism. A pattern can be more novel, complex, or ambiguous for one person than for another or, for the same person, at one time than at another” (Berlyne, 1971, p. 19). Even early applications of information theory to psychology revealed that “the amount of information contained in a stimulus (from the experimenter’s point of view) may be varied greatly without changing the apparent complexity of the stimulus” (Attneave, 1957, p. 225).

Maybe, as in many spheres of perception, aesthetic experiences arise from the interaction of diverse object-driven and subject-driven processes. And, maybe, creating experimental conditions that aim to tease these apart will only end up removing that which is truly aesthetic from the experience.

Attneave, F. (1957). Physical determinants of the judged complexity of shapes. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53, 221-227.

Berlyne, D. E. (1971). Aesthetics and Psychobiology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.