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How does beauty affect your brain? Neuroscientist Semir Zeki has looked inside people's heads with imaging techniques to see if he could find out.
A February 4, 2010 article on Thevarsity.ca reported on research involving art appreciation and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. Some interesting data concerning the orbitofrontal cortex was uncovered.
The orbitofrontal cortex is a region of the brain that deals with emotion and reward. It responds well to beautiful stimuli, and is less inclined to be activated by ugly stimuli.
Appreciating art also was seen to activate areas of the brain involved with sensorimotor responses, which is to say, physical sensation and movement.
More recently, a July 7, 2011 Sciencedaily.com article looked at Zeki's investigations, this time partnering with Dr. Tomohiro Ishizu, of the medial orbitofrontal cortex.
Once again fMRI scans were performed on volunteers contemplating beauty. The vehicles this time were paintings and pieces of music.
This was the first research to indicate that this part of the brain responds not just to visual, but also to auditory beauty. The implication seems to be that the brain has an abstract conception of beauty, irrespective of what familiarity and cultural conditioning may have been ingrained in all of us.
Along with the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the visual cortex responded to visual stimuli, as the auditory cortex did for auditory stimuli. This was not too surprising.
Less expected was finding that the caudate nucleus (another part of the brain) responded to visual beauty in a painting. The caudate nucleus has been known for its association with romantic love. This new data suggests a tantalizing connection between the brain's experience of both love and beauty.
This study was published in the open access journal PLoS One on July 6, 2011.
Irishtimes.com reported on this same research in a July 7, 2011 article. The article observed that it would seem our brains share a response to beauty that crosses cultural and ethnic boundaries.