Seeing the new photos of the Pillars of Creation from the Hubble Telescope took my breath away. Beautiful and awe-inspiring. But what was happening in my brain when I looked at them? How and why we react to beauty is something we rarely think about, but neuroscientists are making progress in better understanding these processes.
In a new study, researchers compared how we judge beauty of places (not sure if Pillars of Creation counts) versus faces. They found that, while the brain activity generally overlaps for evaluating places and faces, there are specific regions of the brain that distinguish the two categories. The work could help scientists better understand how stroke affects people’s decision-making abilities.
Although faces have been well studied in neuroscience, places have been less so. When Teresa Pegors of the University of Pennsylvania was studying spatial processing, she was struck by data she and colleagues had collected about the pleasantness of certain place images. “I really started thinking about the neuroscience of place beauty and broader questions, such as why we assign beauty to places at all,” she explains.
Indeed, says colleague Joseph Kable, aesthetic judgments seem to be among the most uniquely human behaviors. “Do other animals have a sense of wonder, or awe? Do they worry about truth and beauty?”
So, with the help of Anjan Chatterjee and Russell Epstein (also of the University of Pennsylvania), Pegors and Kable set out to better understand how we assign beauty to different categories. In particular, they sought to better understand how beauty affects our decision-making.
“Aesthetic judgments influence our decision-making more than we might think,” Pegors says. “I know for a fact that I am biased towards more beautifully designed products in the grocery story, and marketers know this too. And why do we choose to vacation in beautiful settings? Why is it that what we see actually has the power to draw us in or repel us?”
In their new study, the researchers asked participants to rate the attractiveness of pictures of faces and natural places, both while in the fMRI scanner and after the scan. The researchers then analyzed the scans to see where participants’ brain activity fluctuated along with their ratings. They were specifically looking at the frontal region of the brain, hoping to identify common or dissimilar brain regions that responded to face compared to place beauty.
As published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, they found overlapping brain activity for face and place beauty in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a region of the brain previously identified in making subjective, reward-based decisions. The researchers also identified a subregion of vmPFC within which they could distinguish activity patterns for face versus place attractiveness.
But most surprisingly, they discovered areas on the underside of the frontal cortex, in a region called orbitofrontal cortex, that responded more to faces than to places. Past research has linked social perception to the orbitofrontal cortex, but this study is the first to show simultaneous and functionally distinct regions of face processing there, Pegors says. A new data-analysis technique enabled them to detect these face signals by “unfolding” brain activity sometimes obscured by folds in the orbitofrontal cortex.
One question the researchers had going into the study was whether the brain handles aesthetic and economic evaluations the same way. For example, asking if a person is attractive seems very different than asking if a product or place is attractive, but do our brains handle the question similarly?
“So to me what’s interesting about our results is that, on some level, these judgments do share something fundamental, as evidenced by the similarity in neural activity that they evoke in medial prefrontal regions,” Kable says.
Importantly, the findings have implications for better understanding cognitive deficits caused by stroke or degenerative conditions that affect the frontal regions of the brain. “It can be hard on the families of the people who are affected by this because this kind of damage profoundly changes someone, but not in a way that can be easily described or really, in all honesty, that we understand,” he says. “Our work takes a small step in helping us to understand what these regions of the brain are doing.”
Says Pegors: “It is important to understand exactly how the brain accomplishes judgments and decision making in all contexts, because the more we know about the biological underpinnings, the better we can serve people who have a loss or deficit in these abilities.”
Kable and Chatterjee are next looking at exactly that, studying how damage to these frontal regions affects aesthetic and economic judgments. “Ultimately,” he says, “it would be nice if the ‘frontal cortex’ section of our neuroscience textbooks got to be as detailed as the ‘visual cortex’ section – but that goal will keep us busy for a long time.”
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
The paper, “Common and Unique Representations in pFC for Face and Place Attractiveness” by Teresa K. Pegors, Joseph W. Kable, Anjan Chatterjee, and Russell A. Epstein, was published online on Dec. 24, 2014, in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
For more on neuroscience and art, read this Q&A with Anjan Chatterjee.