Can Brain Scans Really Tell Us What Makes Something Beautiful?

Some scientists think we’ll be able to define great art by analyzing our brains when we see or hear it. Critics say don’t hold your breath

It’s beautiful, but does it know art?
It’s beautiful, but does it know art? Image courtesy of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA and Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH

When art meets neuroscience, strange things happen.

Consider the Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art in Oregon which features rugs and knitting based on a brain scan motif. Or the neuroscientist at the University of Nevada-Reno who scanned the brain of a portrait artist while he drew a picture of a face.

And then there’s the ongoing war of words between scientists who think it’s possible to use analysis of brain activity to define beauty–or even art–and their critics who argue that it’s absurd to try to make sense of something so interpretive and contextual by tying it to biology and the behavior of neurons.

Beauty and the brain

On one side you have the likes of Semir Zeki, who heads a research center called the Institute of Neuroesthetics at London’s University College. A few years ago he started studying what happens in a person’s brain when they look at a painting or listen to a piece of music they find beautiful. He looked at the flip side, too–what goes on in there when something strikes us as ugly.

What he found is that when his study’s subjects experienced a piece of art or music they described as beautiful, their medial orbito-frontal cortex–the part of the brain just behind the eyes–”lit up” in brain scans. Art they found ugly stimulated their motor cortex instead. Zeki also discovered that whether the beauty came through their ears, in music, or their eyes, in art, the brain’s response was the same–it had increased blood flow to what’s known as its pleasure center. Beauty gave the brains a dopamine reward.

Zeki doesn’t go so far as to suggest that the essence of art can be captured in a brain scan. He insists his research really isn’t about explaining what art is, but rather what our neurons’ response to it can tell us about how brains work. But if, in the process, we learn about common characteristics in things our brains find beautiful, his thinking goes, what harm is there in that?

Beware of brain rules?

Plenty, potentially, responds the critics’ chorus. Writing recently in the journal Nature, Philip Ball makes the point that this line of research ultimately could lead to rule-making about beauty, to “creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it.” It conceivably could devolve to “scientific” formulas for beauty, guidelines for what, in music or art or literature, gets the dopamine flowing.

Adds Ball:

Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.

Others, such as University of California philosophy professor Alva Noe, suggest that to this point at least, brain science is too limiting in what it can reveal, that it focuses more on beauty as shaped by people’s preferences, as opposed to addressing the big questions, such as “Why does art move us?” and “Why does art matter?”

And he wonders if a science built around analyzing events in an individual’s brain can ever answer them. As he wrote in the New York Times:

…there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is, just as there can be no all-purpose account of what happens when people communicate or when they laugh together. Art, even for those who make it and love it, is always a question, a problem for itself. What is art? The question must arise, but it allows no definitive answer.

Fad or fortune?

So what of neuroaesthetics? Is it just another part of the “neuro” wave, where brain scans are being billed as neurological Rosetta Stones that proponents claim can explain or even predict behavior–from who’s likely to commit crimes to why people make financial decisions to who’s going to gain weight in the next six months.

More jaded souls have suggested that neuroaesthetics and its bulky cousin, neurohumanities, are attempts to capture enough scientific sheen to attract research money back to liberal arts. Alissa Quart, writing in The Nation earlier this month, cut to the chase:

Neurohumanities offers a way to tap the popular enthusiasm for science and, in part, gin up more funding for humanities. It may also be a bid to give more authority to disciplines that are more qualitative and thus are construed, in today’s scientized and digitalized world, as less desirable or powerful.

Samir Zeki, of course, believes this is about much more than research grants. He really isn’t sure where neuroaesthetics will lead, but he’s convinced that only by “understanding the neural laws,” as he puts it, can we begin to make sense of morality, religion and yes, art.

Mind reading

Here’s some of the latest news about brain scans:

  • I see your pain: A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that scientists were not only able to “see” pain on brain scans, but also could measure its intensity and tell if a drug was helping to ease it.
  • Don’t blame me, it’s my brain that hates calculus: A research team at Stanford University School of Medicine concluded that the size and connectivity of a child’s hippocampus, a brain area that is important for memory, is the key factor in how quickly he or she can learn math.
  • There lies madness Researchers at Cambridge University in the U.K. say they will scan the brains of 300 teenagers and track how their brains evolve as they age. One thing the scientists want to see is how the brain’s wiring changes as teenagers become less impulsive.
  • Trouble brewing: Brain scans may even be able to help detect if a recovering alcoholic is about to fall off the wagon. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry contends that alcoholics with abnormal activity in areas of the brain that control emotions and desires are eight times more likely to relapse and start drink heavily.
  • Robots are people, too: And finally, German researchers say that based on their analysis of brain scans of subjects in a study, people reacted just as strongly to scenes of robots being treated kindly or being abused as they did to humans getting the same treatments.

Video bonus: Samir Zeki explains, in this TED talk, why he’s sure beauty is in the brain of the beholder.

Video bonus bonus: Brain scans can be funny, in a bizarre Japanese humor kind of way. And no, I have no idea why the men in this video are all dressed as female nurses.

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