Heroes of Neurons & Neuroaesthetics during the Brain Awareness Week


The Federation of European Neuroscience Societies supports the Brain Awareness Week, which is the global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. This year, there will be 29 events/projects running simultaneously around the world. The only one in the whole UK is also closely related to Neuroaesthetics:

Screenshot 2015-03-12 at 19.43.25As part of this campaign, the project “Heroes of Neurons” has organised a most intimate series of popular science events on the topic of the human brain and mind. These are three very unique events taking place next week (March 16th to 20th):


DRAWING NEURONS, WRITING BRAINS, PAINTING MINDS: 16th March, 6pm. City University London, Drysdale Building, Room ELG15. 

Emmanuel Pothos will give the inaugural speech and will welcome us to the Brain Awareness Week 2015. Also, he will present the talk on Neuroaesthetics from Beatriz Calvo-Merino and two neuroart exhibitions: “The Eyes of the Skin: The neuronal Underpinnings of the Bodily self through Photography” by  Alejandro Galvez-Pol and “Drawing neurons. Writing brains. Painting minds” by Albert Barque-Duran.

SPEED-SCIENCE: 18th March, 6pm. City University London, Rhind Building, Room DLG19. 

The public becomes the inquiring body, participating in the delivery of unprecedented fast rounds of swing Q&A. The heroes will be: Eduardo Alonso on artificial intelligence, Peter Ayton on decision-making, Carolyn McGettigan on language and communication, and Elliot Freeman on perception.

TALK: HEROES OF NEURONS: 20th March, 6pm. City University London, Drysdale Building, Room ELG02. 

Semir Zeki and Stefano Sandrone will share with us the most critical figures of the history of neuroscience, the Heroes of Neurons, from Ramón y Cajal to the Nobel prize John O’Keefe. A journey that has been fulfilled with misfortunes, enlightenments, and breakthrough discoveries that have defined the way we understand ourselves.

 View the whole program here.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/heroesofneurons

Twitter: @HeroesofNeurons

New book out: An Introduction to Neuroaesthetics

Lauring, J. O. (Ed.) (2014). An introduction to neuroaesthetics: The neuroscientific approach to aesthetic experience, artistic creativity, and arts appreciation. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.


From the publisher: “With this volume, Jon O. Lauring offers a cutting-edge introduction to the emerging field of neuroaesthetics. Gathering works from leading scholars all across the globe, he surveys the many ways we have taken what we have learned about our brains and nervous system and applied it to new understandings of art, beauty, and creativity.

The contributors explore the biological underpinnings of aesthetic experience from a variety of angles. Opening with a look at neuroaesthetics’s historical antecedents and an outline of methods and theories, the book goes on to address a fascinating assortment of studies on biological stimuli and art, from faces and landscapes to literature and film, from places and architecture to music and dance. Simultaneously exploring data from the latest brain-imaging technology and addressing some of our most enduring philosophical quandaries, this volume offers a comprehensive look at a pivotal moment in aesthetics, which grows richer every day with new questions”.



1. A History for Neuroaesthetics (Marcos Nadal, Antoni Gomila, and Alejandro Gàlvez-Pol)

2. Experimental Aesthetics (Helmut Leder and Pablo P. L. Tinio)

3. The Theoretical and Methodological Backdrop of Neuroaesthetics (Jon O. Lauring)

4. Visual Art (Jon O. Lauring)

5. Seeing Faces in the Brain (Alumit Ishai)

6. Environmental Neuroaesthetics, Places, and Architecture (Nicolai Rostrup)

7. The Musical Brain (Jens Hjortkjær)

8. Literary Reading (David S. Miall)

9. Film, Neuroaesthetics, and Empathy (Torben Grodal and Mette Kramer)

10. Neuroaesthetics and Dance (Beatriz Calvo-Merino and Julia F. Christensen)

11. Neuropsychology of the Arts (Bartlomiej Piechowski-Jozwiak and Julien Bogousslavsky)

12. Generating Aesthetic Products in the Scanner: fMRI Studies of Drawing, Story Writing, and Jazz Improvisation (Oshin Vartanian)




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]