Beauty and the Brain: The Problem with Neuroaesthetics


Venus and Cupids, Battista Dossi, c. 1490

by Cain Todd

In an effort to be interdisciplinary, and to keep up with the current trend for all things neuroscience, I recently attended a conference in Berlin on neuroaesthetics. One of only two philosophers in the room, I found myself on the receiving end of an incredibly hostile attack after asking a question of the founding guru of the discipline, the neuroscientist Professor Semir Zeki of University College London. Instead of dealing with my specific objection to his experimental attempt to locate beauty in the brain, he launched an ad philosophem diatribe, claiming that he couldn’t care less about merely philosophical problems such as circularity, argumentative rigour, or conceptual clarity.

Premising his talk on his professed indebtedness to and admiration of philosophy, this indifference to some axiomatic constraints on reasoning in general – to which scientists themselves ought to be subject – struck me as surprising, to say the least. I was also taken aback because, unlike many other philosophers, I am all for neuroscience. Indeed, I am even inclined to think that many phenomena of philosophical investigation are more likely to be explained (or explained away) by empirical than philosophical methods. And it seems to me that locating relevant regions in the brain can, depending on the nature of the study, help to illuminate certain phenomena. Yet Zeki’s attack (and extremely poor presentation) made me concretely aware of the indispensible role of philosophy in exploring certain issues in aesthetics. It also got me thinking more generally about the relationship between scientific and philosophical explanation, but I will leave discussion of that for another day.

Zeki and his team aim to locate the neural correlates of beauty. They do this by, primarily, showing computer images of paintings to subjects in an fMRI scanner and asking them to press a button depending on whether they find them beautiful, ugly, or neutral. They have found that, for example: “the judgment of a painting as beautiful or not correlates with specific brain structures, principally the orbito-frontal cortex, known to be engaged during the perception of rewarding stimuli… and, perhaps surprisingly, the motor cortex. Less predictably, the results also tell us that there is no separate structure that is specifically engaged when stimuli are perceived as ugly. Parameter estimates show that it is rather a change in relative activity in the orbito-frontal cortex that correlates with the judgment of beauty and of ugliness.”

Ignoring the highly questionable assumptions that ugliness and beauty are at opposite poles of a continuum, and that the greater the activity in some brain region the more intense the experience associated with it, these findings are potentially quite interesting as far as they go. The role of the reward centre in experiences or judgements of beauty, for example, may prove hard to reconcile neatly with traditional philosophical notions of the disinterested nature of aesthetic experience. While the role of the motor cortex in judgements of ugliness may well account for our tendency not just to dislike but to recoil from the disgusting, the malformed, the hideous.

Unfortunately, however, even the rather modest illumination offered here – a modesty belied by some of the wilder claims of Zeki to have ‘quantified beauty’ – is beset with so much unclarity, so much conceptual confusion, so many false assumptions, that an undergraduate philosophy student might despair at having to point them all out. Nonetheless, I will now highlight some, but with (I hope) a more interesting end in mind than mere point-scoring.

An especially glaring problem is that it remains entirely unclear whether the studies concern the experience of beauty or the judgement of beauty. These, obviously, are not the same thing, but they are constantly conflated by the neuroscientists. One might have an aesthetic experience of a painting without judging it to be beautiful, and conversely. Think here of the related difference between preference and evaluation. I might have learned to make the evaluative judgement that this painting (or whatever) is an aesthetic masterpiece, beautiful even, without feeling anything at all. Perhaps this work actually leaves me indifferent. Alternatively, I might happen to have strong aesthetic preferences for certain works from which I would withhold the highest aesthetic praise. Would I use the word beautiful to describe such works? Maybe, or maybe not.

The further problem here is that, even assuming that these studies demonstrate some awareness of the distinction between experience and judgement, the nature of each remains obscure. Let’s take the issue of judgement first. On the one hand, the term beauty is what philosophers call a ‘thin term’; it is very unspecific, used often very loosely in ordinary language, could seemingly be directed at almost anything, and as a term of appreciation applied to the complex virtues displayed by visual artworks, is not very helpful. Nor, for that matter, does ‘ugly’ seem to be a normal term to describe bad works of visual art. Many great artworks, even very moving ones, are not obviously beautiful; while one might call works beautiful to express one’s personal preference without thereby evaluating them as great works of art. This difference is simply glossed over in experimental questionnaires asking respondents to rate paintings on a numerical scale.

On the other hand, there is no reason to think – even assuming, highly controversially, that beauty is an identifiable property of objects – that a strong aesthetic experience must be a response to beauty. Why not to elegance or gracefulness or harmony, or artistic originality and skill, or any other merits relevant to aesthetic value? Without these distinctions in play, it is simply not at all clear that the subjects are all reporting the same response, and hence making the same judgement, or whether they (and the experimenters) are conflating, for example, subjective preferences or positive aesthetic experiences with evaluative judgements, or assessments of beauty with assessments of other aesthetic merits.

Turning to the issue of experience, we also find a great deal of confusion about the exact phenomenon being tracked in the fMRI scanner. Artworks are incredibly rich and complex objects, and our appreciation of them contains many layers, including the intellectual, sensual, imaginative, financial, social, cultural, moral, and perhaps also aesthetic. Can the aesthetic pleasure be distinguished from the rest in a scan that has supposedly localised the source of (our experiences of) beauty to a region associated with reward? Whether there is any such thing as the aesthetic experience, and where it fits amongst these other types, is at least in part a philosophical, conceptual issue. In a charitable and very un-philosophical spirit of constructive criticism, it seems to me that at the very least it would be more useful to study our aesthetic responses to more straightforward stimuli, such as trees, sunsets, fungi, tumours, and other natural or non-art objects.

These problems are exacerbated by two features of some typical experiments, the importance of which has remarkably escaped the attention of the neuroscientists to whom I have spoken. First, the fact that it is not the paintings themselves but computer images that are being judged must obviously affect the nature of the responses to them. If, for instance, a represented painting is familiar, one might be all too ready to judge it beautiful, without having anything like the same response to the represented image that one would have to its real-life counterpart. If, on the other hand, the image is unfamiliar, given that only a relatively limited array of aesthetic merits will be evident on a flat computer screen, in virtue of what will a judgement of beauty be made? This brings us to the second point. There is a danger that the reports of subjects are systematically ambiguous, because the artworks chosen as exemplars of beauty are often paintings of, say, a beautiful woman or beautiful landscape, while those deemed ugly are of an ugly subject (e.g. the portraits of Francis Bacon). Is it the work or its content that is being judged beautiful or ugly? In the case of paintings presented on a screen, I suggest that judgements will incline more to the latter than the former.

At this point I should admit to having chosen a relatively easy target in the much-criticised work of Zeki and colleagues. A nice counterbalance would be some of the fascinating neuroscientific studies performed on the aesthetic chills we get when listening to music, and the tentative theses that musical beauty is somehow connected with our fundamental capacity for anticipation and the associated rewarding pleasure of resolution. I should thus repeat that I am in no way against neuroscience’s attempt to explore the neural bases of aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgement. It strikes me that discovering some specific, and perhaps unexpected region in the brain that is especially active when people are engaged in an appropriate way with some paradigmatic act of aesthetic appreciation or creation, could be extremely illuminating, and perhaps even lead to a revision of current philosophical thinking. Again, being constructive, I suggest that it might be even more insightful to study the process of creation than appreciation, and I suspect we will learn much more about the latter by doing so, and far more than we will learn by any amount of philosophical theorizing about creativity.

It is also true that we have to begin somewhere, and the drive to experimentation and quantification no doubt explains some of the impatience with philosophical nit-picking that many scientists are prone to display. After all, how many more millennia of thinking about beauty do we need before we can begin to study it empirically? Yet we need to begin in the right place in the right way, with a more or less clear conception of the phenomena we are studying, and whatever the faults of philosophy, it does posses the right kind of conceptual tools required for this job.

About the Author:

Cain Todd is Lecturer in Philosophy at Lancaster University. His principal research concerns issues in aesthetics that have connections to issues in ethics, philosophy of mind, and epistemology.