La belle ville de Paris: Perceptions of Beauty

So far, two weeks of getting lost in the metro, enduring drastic weather changes, and having frustrating French conversations at the market have passed during our stay in Paris. From the expectation of having exact change for every monetary transaction to the snarling gazes at our (somewhat) loud group of fifteen in the metro, adapting to the social norms of the French culture has proven to be quite the challenge (I’m just glad I haven’t been pickpocketed…yet).

Arc de Triomphe

However, living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities and being surrounded by some of the most famous landmarks in the world have made it easy to forget these daunting hardships faced by our curious group of American college students. Whether it’s marveling at the size of the Eiffel Tower, walking down the Champs-Élysées with the Arc de Triomphe always in view, or even just observing the characteristically quaint Parisian architecture of all the apartment buildings, Paris always has something to offer around every corner. Thus, as a student who’s on this trip to learn more about neuroscience (and to eat lots of delicious food), I began to question myself: What makes these Parisian scenes so appealing and beautiful? What’s the neuroscience behind what we determine as beautiful? I’m hungry, where can I find me some crêpes?

Eiffel Tower

I came across a study focusing on brain systems with regards to aesthetic and perceptual judgment. The scientists who conducted this study, Ishizu and Zeki (2013), have previously shown that the experience of beauty, regardless of its source (for instance, looking at a famous art masterpiece or listening to beautifully composed music), activates an area of the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) (Ishizu and Zeki, 2011). This area of our brain is involved in the cognitive process of decision-making. Thus, judgment comes into play when you’re making these decisions.

medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC)

If you were shown a picture and you were told to say whether you thought it was beautiful or not, not only are you making judgements based on the picture’s aesthetics, you’re also making judgements based on its quality. So what’s the difference between the two? Let’s say you were given two paintings and you were told to determine which one you thought was more beautiful. When shown these pictures, you see that one painting (let’s say painting A) was three times the size of painting B and also seemed to appear brighter. Right off the bat, you’ve made judgements about painting A’s qualities (size and brightness). However, when you observe painting B, you notice that even though it may not be as big or as bright as painting A, you find painting B’s content to be portrayed as more aesthetically pleasing than painting A. This study aimed to figure out whether aesthetic judgements also involved the activity of the mOFC and how these two types of judgement contribute towards judging the beauty of something, like crêpes!

To test this, human volunteers (non-artists or musicians to alleviate any bias) went through two sessions: aesthetic and brightness. In each of these session, the subjects were shown a series of two paintings and were told to judge which one was more beautiful (in the aesthetic session) or brighter (in the brightness session). The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scans that acquired readings of blood oxygen levels in the brain. This allows researchers to see what areas of the brain are being activated when the subjects are told to judge the paintings.

Figure 6 of Ishuzu and Zeki (2013) – shows what brain areas are affected by the type of judgment (brightness or aesthetic).

Results showed that aesthetic and brightness judgments use both shared and separate brain systems. While aesthetic judgement mainly activated subcortical regions and the OFC (areas previously mentioned that were associated with beauty), brightness judgement did not activate any areas with significance compared to the areas activated by aesthetic judgment. However, both aesthetic and brightness judgement activated shared systems, mainly involving the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) (involved with decision making, memory, and cognition) and bilateral anterior insula (known to be involved with many functions, including cognitive and emotional processes).

A beautiful crêpe

This new insight has led me to think about how I judge Paris’s beauty. Do I think the Eiffel Tower is beautiful, or am I just awestruck by its massive size? Do I think the Parisian architecture is beautiful, or is my familiarity to what I normally see in America causing me to think otherwise? The study mentions that further separating the processes of judgement, decision, and experience is difficult because they all use the same brain areas. Being able to understand these separate processes would allow us to really understand how this part of our brain works and finally uncover the truth as to why I find crêpes so beautiful.

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Sources:

Ishizu T, Zeki S (2011) Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE 6(7):e21852.

Ishizu T, Zeki S (2013) The brain’s specialized systems for aesthetic and perceptual judgment. The European Journal of Neuroscience 37(9):1413–1420.

mOFC picture: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MRI_of_orbitofrontal_cortex.jpg

Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, and Crêpe pictures were personally taken.

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