What is beauty? What makes something aesthetically pleasing? Is there an objective standard for beauty that every human has? Or does beauty exist only in the eyes of the beholder? Humans have been asking these questions for centuries, and modern scientists think they might finally have some answers. Although, as always, these answers come with the usual shrug and disclaimer, “We could be totally wrong. We really don’t know enough yet.” (Warning: the following paragraphs contain a lot of neuro-speak that may be unintelligible. I’ll do my best to translate in the parenthesis.)
According to some neuroscientists, there are three basic networks of aesthetic processing: perceptual, cognitive, and emotional (Calvo-Merino). The perceptual network contains the basic components by which visual pleasurable stimuli enter the human mind (or in layman’s terms: the network that responds first to sight.) The mechanisms of the visual system are well known to those who study them, and, for consideration of people’s time, I won’t go into them here (in other words, I don’t remember them fully; even if I did, any explanation of them would take a number of pages that I don’t want to dedicate right now.) What’s interesting is that there was increased activity in the extrastriate areas and occipital and fusiform gyri when observers were asked to report the aesthetic pleasure of certain aesthetic stimuli (basically: especially pretty pictures make certain areas of the brain light up; this fascinates neuroscientists and me).
The cognitive network of aesthetic processing is located mostly in the frontal cortex and includes most of the cortices involved in executive functioning (you know the part of the brain you used when you did math in high school?; that’s the part of the brain I’m talking about). To quote Calvo-Merino, “the fronto-median cortex, jointly with activity in prefrontal regions –specifically the prefrontal dorsolateral cortex, – as well as temporal-parietal brain areas, has been found in another study that compared brain responses during esthetic judgements and perceptual judgement, like symmetry (166).” (The parts of your brain that help you judge symmetry also help you judge something’s beauty.) “Interestingly, these same sets of regions are involved while performing other judgments about human nature, such as social and moral judgements (166).” (The parts of your brain that judge other humans also help judge something’s beauty. Are you noticing a theme? Symmetry. Judging human nature. It seems as though beauty of objects is closely tied to beauty of people. And, we all know what beauty of people is tied to. Sex. It’s amazing how everything in biology comes back to reproduction.)
The third network of aesthetic processing is tied even closer to reproduction. The emotional processing of artwork is tied directly to the mesolimbic pathway between the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area (this is the reinforcement pathway that increases the frequency of any behavior from smoking a cigarette to kissing your lover to eating that extra milk chocolate truffle). Basically, looking at beautiful art is pleasurable and becomes a reinforced behavior (I couldn’t think of a way to make that sentence more complicated).
Another relevant discussion Calvo-Merino had earlier in her piece, “Neural Mechanisms For Seeing Dance” focused around the organization of stimuli and how certain organizations were much more visually pleasing for humans than others (humans enjoy looking at some pictures; not others; scientists have realized this). These organizations focused especially around what psychologists have called the “golden cut,” which is one of the most compelling arguments for the objective theory of beauty. The golden cut is a relatively common term in photography and is built around the biological golden mean. (There’s a super cool ratio that’s found everywhere in nature; scientists call it the golden mean; Google it.) The golden cut tries to harmonize four basic traits humans find pleasing: symmetry, balance, complexity, and order of stimulation. (Humans like things that are stimulating, symmetrical, and yet complex; scientists are so smart.) By applying the golden cut, psychologists think they may have unlocked what makes things objectively beautiful. (But, they really just gave photographers another tool to make pictures beautiful; scientists – and philosophers – are still quite mixed on the issue of beauty’s objectivity.)
It’s important to remember context when we’re talking about all these strangely named concepts and down-right bizarre names of brain areas (fusi-form gyrus? It sounds like the name of a melted metal sculpture that vaguely resembles a child’s spinning top).
There are many objects humans have called beautiful over the millennia, and a vast number of them are other human’s faces. We all have faces that we consider beautiful, (take a second to think about some of yours) and a complete stranger probably wouldn’t agree with us. There are some exceptions of course, and there will always be people whom a large number of us consider beautiful, but by and large, we don’t usually consider a stranger’s face to be beautiful. Instead, it’s the memories and connections we have with those people that make their faces beautiful. It’s our context that makes their faces beautiful. It’s much the same way with artwork. The same piece of art looks different for a couple on their honey-moon than it does for a couple who are about to be divorced.