Beauty Comes from Within
A network in the human brain involved in inner thoughts and self-referential mental processing may contain a universal code for whether we find something to be beautiful, according to a new study from a team of researchers published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor subjects’ brain activity as they were shown images of art, architecture, or natural landscapes, the team found that in the visual parts of the brain, these different types of images led to very different patterns of activity, even across images all judged by subjects to be aesthetically pleasing.
Aesthetic appeal shows in unexpected brain regions
Not so for other parts of the brain. Within the default mode network (DMN)—regions of the brain that are typically active during inward contemplation—the images that people reported as aesthetically appealing led to remarkably similar patterns of brain activity across art, buildings, and landscapes. As the DMN is normally silent when a person engages with the outside world, it is highly unusual that it contains information about the aesthetic appeal of visual experiences.
DMN contains visual information in the form of code
The similar activity patterns, however, suggest that the default mode network may contain a universal code for aesthetic appeal. “We don’t know yet if the DMN actually computes this representation,” said Edward Vessel of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankurt, Germany and leader of the team, which originally launched from New York University. “But it clearly has access to abstract information about whether we find an experience aesthetically appealing or not.” Consequently, the DMN must have an important role in how we respond to beauty, selectively engaging with highly moving visual art.
The researchers anticipate that future research will experiment with music or poetry and explore whether the DMN responds similarly when we find a song or a poem beautiful.
Edward A. Vessel, Ayse Ilkay Isik, Amy M. Belfi, Jonathan L. Stahl, & G. Gabrielle Starr (2019): The default-mode network represents aesthetic appeal that generalizes across visual domains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Advance online publication. doi:10.1073/pnas.1902650116
Edward A. Vessel