The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

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Anjan Chatterjee

Be the first to write a review About this product. About this product Product Information The Aesthetic Brain takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey addressing fundamental questions about aesthetics and art. Using neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, Chatterjee shows how beauty, pleasure, and art are grounded biologically, and offers explanations for why beauty, pleasure, and art exist at all.

Additional Product Features Author s. His neurology practice focuses on patients with cognitive disorders. First, if beautiful faces have universal features, can these features be measured? Measurement is after all the life-blood of any science. Second, if they are universal, are they hard-wired? Colloquially, the term hard-wired implies that our response to these features is built into our brains in the same way.

Finally, if they are universal, why did we evolve to find these features attractive? As a child, growing up in India, Iremember hearing the following story. When God decided to make humans, He molded dough into human forms and put them in the oven. When God pulled out the forms, He saw that they looked white and pasty and He wasnt happy. So God threw the batch out and started again. This time He left the tray in the oven too long. The forms came out black and burnt. So He threw those out and tried again. Finally, He got it right. Out came the golden brown color perfect for humans.

The story drives home the point that most groups make up sto- ries to proclaim their own exceptionality. The earliest attempts to measure beauty, especially with faces, were contaminated with such biases, despite claiming to be objective. The long history of European attempts to determine the physical fea- tures that make a face beautiful unsurprisingly ended up claiming that white European features were the most attractive.

For years after its discovery, it was the most famous sculpture in the Western world. Beauty was a matter of figuring out how well facial features matched this and other such icons of beauty from antiquity. The eighteenth-century Dutch art- ist and anatomist Petrus Camper measured facial angles in profiles. The angle was derived using one line from the ear to the lip and another from the forehead to the most protruding part of the jaw, often the upper lip.

Camper found that Greek statues had a profile angle of about degrees. Most human profile angles range from 90 to 70 degrees. Using these mea- surements, Camper claimed that beauty in races improved in the order of African to East Asian to White European features [12], with the European profile being the closest to the ideal established by Greek statues.

We all have a tendency to want to relate physical features to char- acter. The Swiss pastor Johann Casper Lavater, in his Essays on Physiognomy, wrote confidently that the chin signifies strength in a man [13]. He claimed that an angular or receding chin is seldom found in dis- creet, well disposed, firm men. He also asserted that horizontal eyebrows that are rich and clear always convey understanding, coldness of heart, and the capacity to frame plans. Perhaps not surprisingly, he thought that European facial physiognomy was superior to others.

In a curious connec- tion, FitzRoy, the commander of the ship Beagle, was a Lavater fan. The Beagle is the ship that took Darwin around the world to gather evidence from which he later developed his theory of evolution.


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Darwin wrote in his biography that the captain doubted that anyone with Darwins nose had sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. Of course, this was the nose that led Darwin through 5years of arduous travel that inspired his theory of evolution. The idea that facial and other physical features were indicative of personality continued into the early twentieth century. A physician, Katherine Blackford, promoted a science of character analysis based on physical features. Her books [14], which went through several editions, urged American businesses to use this science in what became known as the Blackford plan.

In referring to skin color, she asserted always and everywhere the normal blond has positive, dynamic, driving, aggressive, domineering, impatient, active, quick, hopeful, speculative, changeable and variety loving characteristics; while the normal brunette has negative, static, conservative, imitative, submissive, cautious, painstaking, plodding, slow, deliberate, serious, thoughtful, and specializing characteristics.

These examples show that early attempts to objectify beauty and charac- terize personalities from physical features were often exercises in prejudice masquerading as science. Setting aside parochial prejudices, can facial attractiveness be mea- sured reliably? Three parameters contribute to facial attractiveness, none of which is unique to any specific ethnicity. The first parameter is aver- ageness. The second is symmetry. Both of these parameters apply to men and women. The third parameter has to do with features that make men and women look different from each other, or the parameter of sexual dimorphism.

Averageness as a measure of attractiveness was discovered seren- dipitously. Before Katherine Blackford deemed blondes positive, Francis Galton was interested in whether specific facial features were characteristic of personality traits. Galton, Charles Darwins cousin, was a brilliant stat- istician, anthropologist, and explorer. He invented statistical correlations and fingerprinting.

He also promoted eugenics. He became interested in whether one could identify common features in the faces of criminals. He overlaid the faces of many criminals convicted of murder, manslaughter, or robbery accompanied with violence onto a single photographic plate, hoping that the composite face would reveal the prototype look of a crimi- nal. Instead of discovering the criminal mastermind, Galton found that composite faces were more attractive than each individual face that made up the composite[15]! Galton discovered that averaged facial features are attractive.

Modern research methods confirm this unexpected discovery [16]. We should be clear that an averaged face is not the same as a plain face. These faces have statistically averaged features, such as how thick or thin a nose is, or how far apart the eyes are set. Earlier, there was doubt about the validity of averaging experiments. The concern was that composite faces blurred the edges of each individual face, making them look younger.

They had the soft-focus haze often used by fashion photographers. However, recent computer techniques have avoided this methodological limitation and it is clear that faces representing the central tendency of a group are seen as more attractive than individual faces. Even infants look at these averaged faces longer than they look at other faces[17]. Another quantitative parameter of faces that people find attractive is symmetry. The anthropologist Karl Grammer and the biologist Randy Thornhill measured facial symmetry by measuring the distance of differ- ent facial landmarks on both the left and right side of the geometric center of the face.

They showed that this symmetry index correlated with judg- ments of attractiveness of mens and womens faces [18]. Many subsequent experiments have confirmed these results. One interesting study was able to hone in on the effects of symmetry by using pictures of identical twins, who of course look very similar [19]. But twins have subtle facial differ- ences; even if their genes are identical, their environmental exposures are not.

The investigators first established which of the two twins had a more. They found that the more symmetrical twin was also regarded as more attractive. Thus, in these pairs of faces, which are similar in so many ways, symmetry influenced their attractiveness. Sexual dimorphism refers to differences in physical features based on gender.

We saw that averaging and symmetry have similar effects on attrac- tiveness for both mens and womens faces. But, what differentiates their attractiveness? The sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone, produce sexually dimorphic physical features. Estrogen feminizes and testosterone masculinizes features. Heterosexual men, regardless of their culture, find feminized features in women attractive[20]. The physical effects of estrogen are similar to what we see in babies faces.

Faces that are baby-like have large eyes, thin eyebrows, big fore- heads, round cheeks, full lips, small noses, and small chins. People just like these cute features. This fact was not lost on Walt Disney. In , Mickey Mouse made his animated appearance in a movie called Steamboat Willie. Mickey started out long and lithe. In , his animator gave him a pear-shaped body, added pupils, and shortened his nose. The curious case of Mickey Mouse is that he has become more like a baby, with a bigger head and bigger eyes and smaller limbs, even as he got older over the last 80years. Pictures of adult mens and womens faces can be artificially made to look more or less baby-like.

Does this manipulation affect attractiveness? Men tend to find women who look younger than their chronological age and have some baby-like qualities more attractive. Men prefer women with high foreheads, big eyes, small noses, full lips, and small chins. These features, associated with high levels of estrogen, signal fertility in women. However, men do not find one baby feature, big puff y cheeks, attractive in adult women.

Men like high cheekbones, which is a sign of maturity. Men, it appears, prefer features that signal both youthfulness and fertility, but with an added dash of sexual maturity[21]. When talking of averageness in womens features, one point needs to be made. Averaged faces are very attractive, but they are not off the charts.

Averaged faces often win beauty pageants, but they are not the faces of supermodels that grace the covers of most fashion magazines. The psychologist David Perret showed that composites of the best-looking women are more attractive than composites of an entire group [22]. Supermodel-level attractive women have exaggerated rather than aver- aged features. They have larger eyes, thinner jaws, and smaller distances between their mouths and chins than average.

These are exaggerated ver- sions of features that distinguish womens from mens faces. The faces of supermodels often have features that are typical of young girls, sometimes of girls under 10years ofage! The story of what heterosexual women find attractive in men is even more complicated. Across culture after culture, in listing what they find attractive, women rank physical attractiveness less highly than men do.

Women are not driven by visual cues as much as men are. The compu- tational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, in their entertaining book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, marshal considerable evidence to make this point. They use data from what they call the worlds largest behav- ioral experiment to reexamine one of the most important and intimate of all behaviors:sexual desire. They analyzed Internet searches to find out what men and women chose to search for on the Web. When it comes to desires in the virtual world, gender differences are strikingly clear.

Men overwhelmingly search for pornography. The videos are visually graphic without much in the way of plot or emotional engagement. By contrast, women overwhelmingly search for e-Rom Web sites. These sites tell romantic stories often built around a heroic man. Womens desires are formed by many different signals, besides what a man looks like.

Status, power, wealth, the ability to protect and provide are more important to women than to men. Henry Kissinger, a man not known for great physi- cal beauty, was often accompanied by young, very attractive women. He observed, Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Although women are more complicated than men in terms of who they think is attractive, they do respond to specific male physical features. Testosterone gives a face a bigger, squared-off jaw, thin cheeks, and a heavy brow.

In general, women prefer these masculinized faces, a preference that is widespread across cultures. Even among the remote! Kung San, bushmen with broader chins and more robust bodies end up with more sexual partners[23]. However, women find masculinized features attractive only to a point. If mens faces are too masculine, woman experience them as domineering. This impression that men with broad chins are.

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West Point cadets with more masculinized fea- tures end up higher in the military hierarchy while at school and later in their careers compared to their somewhat feminized-looking class- mates [24]. If women want stable partners to help raise their children, then a man who is too domineering might not be the best choice for a long-term partner. He might not be invested in the relationship or in the family. So, it turns out that women prefer faces with masculine features and a little femininity thrown in [25].

Slightly feminizing mas- culine faces cuts the domineering note and makes men seem warm, emotionally available, and likely to be committed to the relationship. Another fascinating subtlety about what women find attractive in a man is that their preferences vary during their menstrual cycle. This change in preference is called the ovulatory shift hypothesis and turns out to be a robust finding in human attractiveness research [26]. Young women find different men attractive depending on whether they want a short-term or a long-term partner.

When considering a short-term part- ner, women want more masculine-looking men. This preference is exag- gerated just before women ovulate and are most likely to get pregnant. By contrast, womens preferences for long-term male partners do not vary through the menstrual cycle. We shall come back to the implications of this ovulatory shift in womens preferences for short-term partners when we talk in more detail about the evolutionary reasons driving our prefer- ences for attractiveness. To summarize the findings regarding facial beauty, infants and adults, as well as people from different cultures, respond similarly to the same measurement parameters.

Whether you are a man, a woman, or an infant, you probably find averaged and symmetrical faces attractive. Features that distinguish men from women are also attractive when the differences are emphasized. The context in which we see people makes a difference in how attractive we find them. Context effects have a powerful influence on our pleasures, as we shall see later. For women, the context of whether a man is found attractive can be power and status.

When women orient to a mans physicality, the context can be whether she is looking for a fling or for someone to settle down with. That context also varies depending on whether or not she is close to ovulating. When we think of people as being attractive, we also think of their bodies. In most cultures, we do not get to see naked bodies as often as we see exposed faces. But, if the principles of attraction in faces have biologi- cal and evolutionary underpinnings, as we shall explore later, we would expect similar principles to apply to the parameters that make human bodies attractive.

In his book The Nude:AStudy in Ideal Form, Kenneth Clark pointed out that every time we criticize a human figure, for example, that the neck is too short or the feet too big, we reveal that we have an ideal of physical beauty. Clarks observations suggest that we can measure beauty in bodies. There is a long history of people trying to do exactlythat. In the second century, the Greek physician Galen argued that an arm that was three hand-lengths long was more beautiful than one that wastwo and a half or one that was three and a half hand-lengths long.

The idea that beauty in the human body was a matter of proper proportions really took off in the European Renaissance. After studying in Italy, the German painter and mathematician Albrecht Drer introduced laws of proportion into northern Europe. He described a system of ideal human proportions in his book, De Symmetria. His system reduced the body to simple forms, such as cylinders, spheres, cones, cubes, and pyramids, that could be measured easily. He constructed a proportional system that was actu- ally based on his own hand. The middle finger was supposed be equal to the width of the palm, and the width of the hand was supposed to be pro- portionate to the forearm.

From a set of relations of fingers to hand, hand to forearm, forearm to arm, and limbs to height, he constructed a canon for the entire body. He thought that this system of identifying parts in rela- tion to the total body length gave the body a harmonious, organicunity. Scientific attempts to measure beauty in bodies have not been as extensive as studies of beauty in faces.

However, some of the principles that make a face beautiful also apply to bodies. Symmetry is an impor- tant feature for both mens and womens bodies. Sexual dimorphic features in bodies when exaggerated are also attractive. As Imentioned in the last chapter, we have less exposure to bodies than we do to faces.

Given that we form averages by seeing many examples, and in most contempo- rary cultures we do not get to see many unclothed bodies as compared to faces , we probably dont form the same kind of prototypes of averaged bodies. Except for little dogs wearing cute coats when walking the streets of big cities, animals are inclined to show their bodies uncovered.

Animals turn out to be very aware of each others bodies. Remarkably, animals find symmetry of body parts attractive [27]. For example, male reindeer do well in their sexual marketplaces if their huge antlers are symmetrical [28]. Female swallows mate more often with males that sport large and symmetrical tails [29]. Body symmetry also affects beauty in the human animal. Men with symmetrical feet, ankles, hands, elbows, wrists, and ears are considered more attractive than lop-sided men [30].

The point is not that women necessarily fetishize these parts of mens bodies, but that these parts can be measured easily and are good markers of overall symmetry. Men with symmetrical bodies also do well in their own sexual marketplace. They tend to have sex a few years earlier than other men. They also have sex earlier when courting a specific woman, and have two or three times as many partners than less symmetrical men. Their partners even experience them as better in bed! It turns out that a mans physical symmetry can predict the likelihood of his female lover having an orgasm better than his earnings, investment in the relationship, or frequency of love-making[31].

Heterosexual men also prefer symmetrical women. This preference is evident in laboratory experiments as well as from behavioral observa- tions. Physically symmetrical women have more sexual partners than less symmetrical women. It turns out that women with large and symmetri- cal breasts are more fertile than women with less symmetrical breasts.

Women also become more symmetrical during ovulation. Symmetry in soft tissue as measured in womens ears and third, fourth, and fifth fingers can increase up to 30percent during ovulation[32]. We saw that sexual dimorphic features can drive attractiveness in male and female faces. Sexual dimorphic features also influence how animals and people react to bodies [21,27]. In the animal world, males are often extravagant in their displays. Exaggeration of plumage, as in the peacock, is. Female swordfish prefer males with longer swords, female swallows prefer males with longer tails, female flies of the family Diopsidae prefer males with long stems on their eyes, rutting reindeer pre- fer males with large antlers.

Size matters. Most physical differences between men and women are the result of the hormones testosterone and estrogen. Testosterone, among other things, increases human physical size. Most people like tall men [33]. The taller man almost always wins U. The CEOs of successful companies are more likely to be tall than to be short. Height can affect starting salaries. The link between height and status goes both ways. People thought to be powerful are seen as a few inches taller than if they were thought to be relatively powerless. Women find tall men attractive. Almost without exception, women prefer men that are of average height or above to men that are shorter than average.

Tall men get more responses to personal advertisements. To be very concrete about sexual selection, when choosing sperm donors in fertility clinics, women are more likely to want the sperm of tall men[34]. Most people think that the ideal shape of a mans torso is the V shape, with broad shoulders and narrow hips [35].

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Both men and women dis- like a pear-shaped man, one with narrow shoulders and a wide waist. The major difference in strength between men and women is in the arms, chest, and shoulders. This is where testosterone has a big impact in laying down muscle mass. Not surprisingly, mens fashions over the years have empha- sized and exaggerated their shoulders, from the use of epaulets that desig- nate rank, to shoulder pads in just about every power suit on Wall Street. Romans wore breast-plates that emphasized the size of their chests. Now men insert pectoral implants and use liposuction to remove fat from their waist and breasts.

Male models are stereotyped in their physique. They are over 6 feet tall with chest sizes of inches and waists inches. In male bodybuilders, these proportions are exaggerated, with chests almost twice as large as their waists. Women have a different distribution of fat than men. Estrogen depos- its fat in breasts, buttocks, and thighs.

These womens body parts preoc- cupy men. In my lab, when we were designing an experiment on facial attractiveness, we first went to a Web site called Hot or Not to see if pho- tographs from this site could be used in our experiments. The idea was. After a few minutes of looking at these Web pages it was clear that this strategy was not going to work for womens faces in our study.

Without conducting statistical analyses it was obvious that womens pictures showing breasts and cleavages had a big impact on mens ratings. These photographs sim- ply could not be used in a study investigating facial beauty, because men were so distracted by breasts. Men prefer breasts that are firm and upward tilting, regardless of the size they prefer.

This is the shape of breasts in young women who have not given birth, but they are also physical indica- tors of fertility. Culture certainly affects how men react to womens bodies. However, cultural effects can interact with universal factors.

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In some cultures, men like heavier women and in others they like slender women. The very extremes are not liked in any culture. These cultural preferences are linked to the availability of food and other resources. In almost all developed countries that have reliable and rich sources of food, lower weight is asso- ciated with higher social and economic status in women. Fat countries like thin women. The relationship is the opposite in poorer countries where food is scarce.

This phenomenon is called the environmental security hypothesis. The general idea is that if food is scarce, a womens body fat indicates whether she has the energy reserve to bear children. Support for the environmental security hypothesis on attractiveness shows up in some striking examples. The physical characteristics of the Playboy Playmate of the Year from to track U. When eco- nomic times are difficult, the Playmates are older, heavier, and taller; they have larger waists, smaller eyes, larger waist-to-hip ratios, smaller bust-to- waist ratios, and larger body mass indices [36].

Similarly, between and , American movie actresses with more mature featuressmall eyes, thin cheeks, and larger chinswere popular when times were tough, and those with baby-like featureslarge eyes, round cheeks, and small chinswere popular when times were plentiful [37]. When the going gets tough, the large get going in the eyes of amorousmen.


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Regardless of overall weight preference and the status given to women because of social and cultural conditions, one factor remains constant. Men prefer women with an hour-glass shape. This female shape with a. That means men prefer women with bodies that advertise their fertility. Men have waist-to-hip ratios between 0. Most fertile women have waist-to-hip ratios between 0. In fact, women with a waist-to-hip ratio under 0. The late psychologist Devandra Singh [38] found that men in many different cultures prefer womens bodies with waist-to-hip ratios around 0. Top female models ratios often hover around 0.

This preference for the ratio is true regardless of whether the culture admires slender or robust women. In the United States, both Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe are icons of beauty, despite being quite different in size. Both had waist-to-hip ratios of0. Given that we find both faces and bodies attractive, do we value one more than the other? Generally, people orient to faces more than bodies. However, men do vary in whether they choose to look at a womans face or her body depending on whether they want a quick fling or whether they want to settle down into a serious relationship.

In one laboratory study [39], young men were shown images of women in which the face and the body were initially covered. In choosing a partner, they were allowed to look at either the face or the body, but not both. For the fling, they looked at the body more often than the face, but for the serious relationship they looked at the face more often than the body. The insight motivating this study is that a womans reproductive potential and fertility do not always go together. For example, a pregnant woman, barring mishap, is pretty likely to have a baby.

But she is not fertile while she is pregnant. Women with low waist-to-hip ratios are fertile. So bodies are better signals for fer- tility than faces, and fertility drives mens desires for short-term partners. Mens bodies do not convey this kind of information, and in the study women did not vary in looking at mens faces or bodies depending on whether they were looking for short- or long-term partners.

Bodies move. Back in , Darwin observed that we use dynamic cues to guess what other people are doing. How people move gives us a lot of useful information. Neurologists are trained specifically to observe the way people walk, because a persons gait gives us the best quick index of the nervous systems health. In the brain, as we shall see in the next chap- ter, we have areas that specialize in perceiving peoples movement. We can. If you film a person walking in the dark with points of light fixed to 10 or 12 body joints and create what scientists call point light walkers, people immediately recognize the points of light as moving human bodies.

From just these moving points we can tell a persons gen- der, age, and whether they are anxious or relaxed and happy orsad. Darwin thought that dance was a courtship ritual that signaled the quality of the dancer. Birds and insects dance. Female fruit flies choose their mates based on how well they dance [40]. Many male spiders attract female spiders with elaborate dances.

Among funnel spiders, males that sway their abdomens fastest are most successful at attracting females [41]. One does not need to be a genius on a cruise ship to a distant land observ- ing exotic animals or alien insects to appreciate that dance is a court- ship ritual. One can see these mating rituals in any local nightclub.

Even before getting to the dance floor, women, when interested in a man, move moreoften, more slowly, and with smaller amplitudes. Men are drawn to these come-hither movements. Movement exaggerates some body parameters that are attractive when viewed statically. Movement can really display the efficient use of a symmetrical body.

Middle-distance runners perform better than their asymmetrical competitors [42]. The hourglass shape of womens hip waist ratio is emphasized by the alternating leftright sway of their walk. Women find point light walkers of symmetrical men attractive. Women rate very masculine point light walkers as most attractive when they are looking for short-term partners. This preference for masculine moving points of light is exaggerated when the women are ovulating [43]. In fact, ovulating women are also more likely to say yes when asked to dance byaman.

Bizarrely, it turns out that mens fingers are related to how women ratethe attractiveness of dancing men. The ratio of the lengths of the ring to the index finger is affected by prenatal testosterone exposure. More tes- tosterone exposure produces a longer ring finger in relation to the index finger.

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Men with larger ring-to-index finger length ratios are stronger and better at skiing, playing soccer, and sprinting. Apparently, they also dance better than men with lower ratios. In one study, video clips of male danc- ers with larger or lower ring-to-index finger ratios were shown to women.

Themen that women thought were more attractive, dominant, and mascu- line based on these video clips had longer ring-to-index finger ratios[19]. So, it turns out that the parameters that make bodies beautiful are similar to those that make faces beautiful. We prefer bodies, like faces, that are symmetrical. We also experience bodies, like faces, that exaggerate sexual dimorphic features as beautiful.

Men orient to signs of fertility in women. Women orient to signs of masculinity in men, which, as we shall see later, may signal the quality of the genes they carry. We dont know if averaged bodies are beautiful. Some cultural phenomena such as body- building competitions, clothing styles, and dance often exaggerate the same parameters that underlie what we find beautiful. Finally, the context in which bodies are seen matters. Whether we are looking for a short-term or a long-term partner, and whether or not a woman is ovulating makes a difference in which bodies are thought to be beautiful.

The next two chapters will start our explorations of the brain. First, we will see how the brain works in general. This will seems like a detour from our journey into beauty, but it is necessary to establish some brain basics. Later in the book, Iwill integrate neuroscience information as we goalong.

The brain is an amazing organ. As a machine, it operates on about 25 watts of power, and yet it can do all the incredible things we do. There is no thought or fantasy or idea that does not play out in the brain. The brain has a hundred billion nerve cells with a hundred trillion connections.

It is eas- ily the most complex organ in the body. How can we possibly understand something so complex? The reality is that we have much to learn about the brain. But since the late nineteenth century, we have been accumulating knowledge about the brain from patients with brain damage, from electri- cal recordings of brain cells, and, more recently, from new ways of taking pictures of thebrain. The brain works with a logic that is tied to its anatomy.

Understanding something about its anatomy and the way different parts of the brain are connected gives us insight into its operations. For our purposes, the struc- ture and function of the brain open a window into what happens during aesthetic encounters. Lets start with some basic brain terminology. The surface of the brain is called the cortex. It has grooves that are called sulci and ridges that are called gyri. The major parts of the cortex are called lobes. We have occipi- tal, parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes. Major fissures separate different parts of the brain.

The interhemispheric fissure separates the left and right hemisphere, and the Sylvian fissure separates the temporal lobe from the parietal lobe. Deep within the brain, clumps of nerve cells make up subcortical structures. The basal ganglia are one such clump that will be important to our discussion. The cerebellum is a separate and phyloge- netically old part of the brain that lies below the occipital cortex.

There are two important principles to keep in mind when think- ing about the brain. The first principle is that the brain has a modular. This means that different pieces of the brain specialize in car- rying out specific operations. You can think of this organization like a car assembly line where each group of workers is trained to do specific tasks before the pieces are passed on to be further assembled, or processed, by other workers. The second important principle is that the brain pro- cesses information in a parallel and distributed manner.

Here, the assembly line analogy breaks down, because distant parts of the brain factory work together in a coordinated fashion. This principle means that the different areas that make up modules of the brain act together as part of a network choreographed to create most of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. So, in order to understand how this complex organ gives us that fuzzy good feeling when looking at sunsets while taking long walks on the beach, we need to know something of its modular organization and its parallel and distributed processing.

At the most basic level, the brain has input systems, output systems, and things that modify whatever we take into our brain before we put something out. Information from the world comes into our brain from our different senses. Each of these senses, for what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, delivers information to different parts of the brain. Eventhough our eyes are in the front of our head, visual information goes to the back of our brain, into the occipital lobes. Different parts of the back of the brain are tuned to different parts of our visual world, such as color, shape, and contrast.

These parts of vision are then combined into more complex objects, such as faces and bodies and landscapes, each with its own special area in the brain. These specialized areas are examples of the modular organization of the brain. One of the most striking clinical syn- dromes in neurology is called prosopagnosia. In this disorder, which hap- pens because of the brains modular organization, people have damage to the face area.

They can read books, recognize objects, and navigate their environment. However, they cannot recognize faces, even those of their family and close friends. Emotions have a big influence on how we process the information coming in through our senses. We all have the experience of being in a good mood and noticing sunny skies and chirping birds, or being in a bad mood and noticing dark clouds and pigeon crap all over the place. Our emotions color what we notice and how we experience them. These regions are called limbic areas.

The limbic brain is responsible for our joys and fears, our happiness and sadness, our delights and disgusts. It is closely linked with the autonomic nervous system. This part of the brain is autonomic because it does its work tirelessly behind the scenes without our even being aware that it is humming along. The autonomic nervous system con- trols our heart rate and blood pressure and sweating responses, and links our brain and body in emotional experiences. This is why our pupils dilate when we are excited, our palms sweat when we are nervous, and our blood pressure rises when we areangry.

Meaning is another important system that profoundly affects how we see and experience the world. This point is obvious if we think about looking at the script of a language we dont know. For example, Ican look at Arabic calligraphy and appreciate its graphic beauty without knowing what it means. However, if Icould read Arabic, and the text were the story of Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights, my experience of these visual forms changes entirely.

While this reading example is particularly dramatic, something along these lines happens whenever we look at most objects. Bringing knowledge to bears on whatever we are looking at has a huge impact on our experience of seeing. Meaning is mostly organized in the sides of the brain, in the temporal lobes. This is where general knowledge, our store of facts about the world, is stored.

Besides general knowledge, we also know personal facts that refer to our individual his- tories. For example, knowing that the story of Scheherazade is a classic love story is different from knowing that Ifirst heard the story in school as a boy in India. Personal memories are organized by a different part of the temporal lobe, tucked in deep, close to parts of the brain that control our emotions.

Finally, there are two big segments of the brain called the frontal and the parietal lobes. These structures have become larger in the human brain than in the brains of our closest primate relatives. They often work together, with the parietal lobes being important in what we choose to pay attention to and the frontal lobes being important in organizing our execu- tive functions. These functions are so named because the frontal lobes are like executives of a big company. They tell other parts of the brain what to do and make plans that the rest of the brain might not be awareof.

In what follows, Iwill repeat all of this information, only in more detail. The detailed version includes long and complicated names of parts of the brain. Remembering the names of different brain areas has always been a chore even for medical and neuroscience graduate students. However, it would be silly to have brain in the title of a book and not talk about the brain with some specificity. Many of the neuroanatomical names will come up again when Italk about neuroscience experiments. Visual processing starts in the retina of our eyes, where different kinds of nerve cells specialize to do different things.

Cells called rods process luminance and cells called cones process color. When we colloquially say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we really mean it is in the brain of the beholder. So, we start in the brain at the occipital lobes. Visual infor- mation is sorted in different regions of the occipital and then the adja- cent temporal lobes. For example, the shape of things, their movement or color, are all processed in different regions.

This dismantling of our visual world into pieces gives us a Humpty Dumpty problem. How do we put all these pieces together again to give us our seamless visual experience of the world? Unlike all the kings horses and all the kings men, our brains manage to do just that. Exactly how is a topic that preoccupies many neu- roscientists, but clearly it involves some kind of parallel processing.

For now, lets note that different parts of our visual brain work on different things. There is an area that processes faces the fusiform face area, FFA and a separate area that processes places the parahippocampal place area, PPA , including both natural and human-made environments. Close by, an area located on the side of the occipital lobes processes objects the lat- eral occipital complex, LOC in general.

Next to it is an area that responds to the form of human bodies the extrastriate body area, EBA. So, we have a visual cortex that has specialized modules to process places, faces, bodies, and different objects. Is it a coincidence that much of visual art is about landscapes, portraits, nudes, and still lifes? Is it also a coincidence that we have an area specialized for biological motion and that dance is such a popular form ofart? As I mentioned before, limbic areas that process our emotions are sequestered deep within the brain.

These areas do not lend themselves to being named easily as a face or a place area. Some of the main struc- tures to be aware of as we think about aesthetic encounters are the follow- ing. The amygdala is an important part of the brain that handles emotions like fear and anxiety. It plays a role in coloring our memories with emo- tions, like remembering the anxiety you might have felt going into the Principals office.

The subcortical cluster of neurons that make up the basal ganglia have two big functions. One function is to work with the cerebel- lum and motor cortex to help coordinate movements. This function of the basal ganglia is impaired in patients with disorders like Parkinsons disease, in which people move stiffly and slowly, or Huntingtons disease, in which people cannot control their movements. The second function of the basal ganglia is more germane to our discussion.

The basal ganglia contribute to our experiences of pleasure and rewards. Important parts of the basal ganglia are the ventral striatum and one of its major subcomponents, the nucleus accumbens. These structures are washed in pleasure chemical sig- nals, such as dopamine and opioid and cannabinoid neurotransmitters. The high that people experience from cocaine, heroin, and marijuana is a result of flooding these neurotransmitter receptors.

In the underbelly of the front of the brain lies the orbitofrontal cor- tex. This area is referred to as orbito because it is just above our eyeballs inside our skulls. This cortical structure is also tied to our experience of rewards. Other relevant parts of the brain for our discussion are the insula and the anterior cingulate.

The insula harbors connections to the hypo- thalamus and together these structures regulate hormones and the auto- nomic nervous system. The anterior cingulate does many different things, like mediate pain and try to sort out conflicts we face. Iwill discuss these structures in greater detail when we ponder pleasure. Meaning is often linked to language, which is organized in the left hemisphere of most peoples brain. The area around the Sylvian fis- sure harbors language.

Carl Wernicke, a famous German neurologist, in first reported that patients with damage to the back end of the Sylvian fissure, where the temporal lobe meets the parietal lobe, were unable to understand anything said to them. This location is now named. Wernickes area, to honor his discovery. People with damage to this area dont understandwords. Parts of the temporal lobes are critical storehouses of meaning.

It is as if all bits of information about the world from our different senseswhat we see, hear, and feelgot funneled into the sides of the temporal lobe and gathered together into our knowledge about the world. In a degen- erative neurological disorder called semantic dementia, neurons in the left temporal lobe die, for reasons we do not understand. These patients gradually lose their knowledge of objects. A small area tucked inside the temporal lobes, called the hippocam- pus, is critical to meaning that is tagged in time. Perhaps the single most famous case in all of neurology is a man named Henry Gustav Molaison, referred to as HM in medical writings.

In the s, HM had both hip- pocampi surgically removed as a treatment for his epilepsy. After this surgery he couldnt remember a thing, but otherwise was clearly very intelligent. Observations in HM led the way to our understanding of how general and personal meanings are organized in thebrain.

I already mentioned that the parietal and the frontal lobes are larger in the human brain than in our closest primate relatives. The parietal cortex is well known for organizing the ways we think about space. It is like a spotlight that shines its beam of attention over different parts of our exter- nal world and helps guide us to reach for things and move through space. The frontal lobes encompass a huge amount of the brain.

It organizes the information from the rest of the brain and prepares us to act in the world. The frontal lobes, along with our emotional centers, are where our sense of personality comes from. When people are neurotic, or extraverted, or laid back, these differences are written into differences in the frontal lobes and their connections with limbic areas.

Generally, the frontal lobes are divided into three broad regions:the dorsolateral on the sides , the medial in the middle , and the ventral the under belly portions. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is where executive functions are housed. It is involved in making decisions and planning what we need to do.

The medial frontal cortex more directly coordinates our motor systems and is involved in our sense of self. Damage to this area can cause a dramatic clin- ical syndrome called akinetic mutism, in which individuals appear awake but are completely unresponsive to the outside world. The ventral part of. The orbitofrontal cortex is most impor- tant here. As we shall see later, parts of the orbitofrontal cortex thatare closer to the midline of the brain are important for rewards, and parts fur- ther out to the sides for when we are sated with whatever was giving us pleasure.

To foreshadow the next chapter, this is what happens when we look at aesthetically pleasing objects. Information comes in from our eyes to the occipital lobes. This information is processed in different parts of the occipital lobe, which interact with our emotions in the limbic areas. When we like what we see, the pleasure or reward centers of our limbic areas are turned on. When we think about the meaning of what we are looking at, the temporal lobes are engaged. When we draw on our personal memories and experiences in aesthetic encounters, the inside of the temporal lobe comes online.

As beautiful things engage us and capture our attention and we respond to them, we activate our parietal and frontallobes. We were in Palma, Spain, at Marcos invita- tion to talk about neuroaesthetics. Oshin is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies the brain bases of reasoning, decision-making, and creativity. We were talking about science fiction and somehow got to talking about the Alien movies.

Imentioned that Ifound Sigourney Weaver especially attractive. Oshin is a few years younger than Iam. He prefers Wynona Ryder to Ms. As he talked, his eyes glazed over, while Alexandras eyes rolled back. She pointed out that Ms. Ryder was a shoplifter. For Oshin that observation didnt matter. After all, he insisted, Shes Wynona Ryder! She didnt really mean to do those things. Here was a neuroscientist, someone who works for a national defense depart- ment, who is an expert on human reasoning, unwilling to entertain the pos- sibility that Wynona Ryder was culpable for her less than admirable acts.

Of course, Oshin was being tongue-in-cheek with his insistence, but only in part. It turns out that Oshin is far from alone in resisting the idea that attractive people might not also be good people. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty were three ultimate values for Plato.


  • The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology (8th Edition).
  • The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art.
  • Handbook of personality disorders : theory and practice;

These values easily get mixed up, with beauty being associated with being good and true. Like Oshin, most of us think attractive people har- bor all sorts of personal characteristics that, when you actually think about it, make no sense whatsoever. Attractive children are considered more intelligent, honest, and pleasant, and are thought to be natural leaders. In one study [44], teachers were given report cards of fifth-grade students, which included grades, work attitudes, and attendance, along with pictures of the students.

The teachers expected the good-looking. Teachers often give more attractive children better grades, unless the tests are stan- dardized. Attractive adults are thought to be more competent and have greater leadership qualities than less attractive people. They are expected to be strong and sensitive and better as politicians, professors, and coun- selors.

They get jobs more easily and earn more money. Oshin would not be surprised to find out that attractive people are less likely to be reported for shoplifting even if they are clearly seen in the act. If caught, they are given lesser punishments. People are more willing to cooperate with or to help attractive people. These tendencies have been shown in planned experiments. People were more likely to return money found in a phone booth back when such oddities still existed to an attrac- tive woman than to an unattractive one [45].

In another study, college applications were left in an airport with a note implying that the appli- cants fathers was supposed to have mailed the application, but that the application had been dropped inadvertently. The applications, which were otherwise identical, had pictures of the applicants on them. People were more likely to mail in the application if the person pictured was attractive[46]. We usually dont realize that a persons attractiveness has a halo effect that makes us think well of them.

Could it be that our brains sense attrac- tiveness even when we are not conscious of doing so? The changes in blood flow are a response to changes in underlying neural activity. Scientists design experiments to see which parts of the brain are active when people are engaged in different tasks. We had people look at pairs of faces to observe their brains responses to facial attractiveness. The faces were generated by a computer program and were made so that they varied in how similar they were to each other and in how attractive they were.

In one session people judged the identity of the faces, and in another session they judged their attractiveness. Designing the experiment this way allowed us to find out how their brain responded to attractive faces even when they were not thinking about beauty. What did we find?

When people were thinking about beauty, specific parts of the brain responded to more attractive faces. These areas included the face area FFA and the adjacent lateral occipital cortex LOC that processes objects in general. Askeptic might ask, if the entire visual brain becomes active, what have we learned? Well, in our experiment, not all parts of the visual cortex responded to facial beauty. The area tuned to places PPA didnt change as faces became more attractive, suggesting that the activity we saw was not a general response in visual cortex but one restricted to specific parts of the brain.

Other researchers have also found similarly increased neural activity in these visual areas for more attractive faces. In addition to these visual areas, we found more activity in the parietal, medial, and lateral frontal regions of the brain when people judged beauty. We think these areas were engaged because people had to pay attention to the faces and make decisions about which faces they thought were attractive. For technical reasons, our scanning procedure was not sensitive to detecting neural activity in brain areas that are impor- tant for rewards.