Our brains have different 'beauty centers' for art and faces

Psychologists discover that the way the brain perceives beauty differs between art or faces.

Our brains have different 'beauty centers' for art and faces
Credit: kevin laminto on Unsplash
  • A new study shows that different parts of the brain are engaged when we look at beautiful faces or beautiful art.
  • Reward pathways are triggered by looking at beauty in faces.
  • Another part of the brain is involved in judging beauty in art, indicating existence of two "beauty centers."

What makes something or someone beautiful to our minds? Is there an innate perception of beauty that's maintained throughout all scenarios? Interestingly, a new study concludes that our brains have not one but two separate "beauty centers" – one for art and one for faces.

Scientists carried out a meta-analysis of existing fMRI studies with around 1,000 people. Led by Hu Chuan-Peng of Tsinghua University, China, the team zeroed in on 49 studies that performed brain analyses of people between 18 and 50. None of them were art experts, but some studies involved people reacting to art like paintings, sculpture, architecture, and dance videos. Other studies under consideration looked at responses to human faces. All the studies used fMRI brain imaging technology as the subjects were making aesthetic choices or rating specific stimuli.

The researchers used a meta-analysis technique called "activation likelihood estimation" (ALE) to find connections in studies which tracked brain activity patterns of people looking at something or someone they perceived to be beautiful.

The approach showed that looking at beautiful faces causes activity in several parts of the brain, which is not observed when looking at faces that were not rated as beautiful – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, as well as the left ventral striatum. Notably, looking at art did not result in more activity in any of those areas. Rather, greater action in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex (aMPFC) was noticed.

Beauty and sex: Evolution isn’t as practical as you think | Richard Prum | Big Think

Why is there such a difference? The scientists propose that looking at a beautiful face provokes a response in the brain's reward pathway, of which the ventral striatum is an important part. As explained in the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society, the signal is then integrated into the vmPFC and generates a positive feeling.

As such, beautiful faces are treated by our brains like "primary rewards" not too different from food or sex, geared at the survival of our genes. Looking at art is rather a "secondary reward." We taught ourselves to find it pleasurable but the brain processes that type of stimuli differently, via high-level processing in the aMPFC.

As the new study concerned itself with how our brains handle visual beauty, further investigation is needed to understand the processing of non-visual beauty like music, for instance, or if there is some universal standard of what is deemed beautiful.

Check out the study "Seeking the 'Beauty Center' in the Brain: A Meta-Analysis of fMRI Studies of Beautiful Human Faces and Visual Art," published in Cognitive, Affective & Behavioural Neuroscience.

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Mathematical model shows how the Nazis could have won WWII's Battle of Britain

With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.

Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
  • Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
  • A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Keep reading Show less

New data reveals Earth closer to a black hole and 16,000 mph faster

A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.

Position and velocity map of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Credit: NAOJ
Surprising Science
  • A Japanese radio astronomy project revealed Earth is 2,000 light years closer to the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way's center.
  • The data also showed the planet is moving 7 km/s or 16,000 mph faster in orbit around the Galactic Center.
  • The findings don't mean Earth is in more danger from the black hole but reflect better modeling of the galaxy.
  • Keep reading Show less

    How has technology changed — and changed us — in the past 20 years?

    Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.

    PEDRO UGARTE/AFP via Getty Images
    Technology & Innovation
    Just over 20 years ago, the dotcom bubble burst, causing the stocks of many tech firms to tumble.
    Keep reading Show less
    Surprising Science

    The magic of mushrooms: A mycological trip

    A biologist-reporter investigates his fungal namesake.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast