Can studying the brain inform our understanding of the nature of beauty? A new essay by Bevil Conway and Alexander Rehding explores the nascent field of neuroaesthetics, and the types of questions this field can and cannot answer. The essay is published March 19 in the open access journal PLOS Biology.
The concept of beauty has long intrigued many people: what makes something beautiful? Why are we capable of recognizing beauty? Although philosophers have come to no consensus, some neuroscientists have recently asked whether advances in brain science might now be poised to answer these questions. This idea has not been without controversy, with some questioning the conceptions of beauty held by scientists working in the field, and some humanists reluctant to expose their area of artistic expertise to scientific inquiry.
The new essay, written jointly by a humanist, Dr Rehding, and a neuroscientist, Dr Conway, begins by addressing the main goals of neuroaesthetics, one of which is understanding the nature of artistic beauty.
“It is important to distinguish between beauty, art, and perception,” says Dr Conway. “Experiences of beauty are often deeply moving, but being moved does not always indicate an instance of beauty. History has shown us that artists themselves have often created deeply moving artwork that is not objectively beautiful; consider Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, for example.”
The authors explore how neuroscience can help us to distinguish between these subjective and objective experiences, and whether a neuroscientific analysis of art can reveal universal principles of beauty. The essay discusses whether a “beauty center” might exist in the brain, and whether new imaging techniques could actually uncover a neural basis of subjective beauty.
“Insofar as beauty is a product of the brain, correlations between brain activity and experiences of beauty must exist,” they write. “At what spatial scale, and within what brain regions, do we find these correlations?”
Drs Conway and Rehding admit, however, that science is not in a position to tackle beauty outright, for fundamental reasons concerning the nature of beauty and the scientific process. They instead argue that the field of neuroaesthetics can be advanced by abandoning a pursuit of beauty per se; rather, it should take up a broader investigation of the neural mechanisms underlying the choices we make and the preferences we formulate. It is with this approach, they argue, that the field of neuroaesthetics can best serve the scientific community and the general public.
“Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty”,
Conway BR, Rehding A (2013).
PLoS Biol 11(3): e1001504. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001504