The neuroscience of beauty: What your brain finds beautiful – and how this shapes your thoughts
We seem pre-programmed to appreciate beauty, but why is this?
Much of what we find beautiful is highly subjective. However, experts who have interviewed large numbers of people and analysed some of the world’s most revered works of music, art and architecture have identified common attributes among the things we find beautiful. These universal qualities include simplicity, pattern, rhythm, symmetry, certain juxtapositions of colour, specific combinations of musical notes and physical elements arranged in certain ratios and geometries.
Neuroscientists also know a bit about what happens in our brains when we perceive beauty. In one study, volunteers inside a brain-imaging fMRI scanner were asked to rate pieces of visual art and music as either ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’ or ‘indifferent’. When the participants experienced beautiful images or music, the researchers saw activity in a region of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which plays a role in our feelings of reward and pleasure. Other studies have identified that part of the region known as the striatum – also involved in reward and judgment – responds to beautiful faces.
But why do we experience beauty at all? Does it have a purpose? The leading theory is that we’re hardwired to appreciate forms and patterns that are pervasive in nature, such as fractals, the Golden Ratio and symmetry, because they helped our ancestors survive.
A symmetrical face, for instance, suggests good health and strong genes in a potential mate. Our brains recognise plants that grow in fractal patterns as healthy and safe to eat, and make us wary of those that grow askew. Things that help us survive activate the reward centre in our brain, inducing feelings of pleasure and, in doing so, cause us to attach value to them.
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Ceri Perkins is a New York City-based writer and editor who covers the environment, science, nature and human behaviour. As a freelancer, she has lived around the world, from Madrid to the Scottish Highlands. Before going freelance, Ceri was based in Geneva, Switzerland, as a staff writer/editor at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. Later, she was News Editor at NYC-based magazine Spectrum, where she edited news and opinion stories about the neuroscience and genetic underpinnings of autism. In her spare time, Ceri is typically either outdoors in nature or curled up inside with a stack of books and a pile of things to make or fix. She holds a Bachelor’s in Atmospheric Science, a Master's in Science Communication, and you can read her work in TED Ideas, BBC Earth, The Guardian, Physics World, New Scientist, and more.
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