December 6, 2015
This is a paper I wrote for my neuroscience class and I thought it’s worth sharing on my blog. I’ve been studying beauty for a while now and I tried to do a quick overview of a lot of the research which is taking place today, placing it in all in a larger context. However, I really struggled writing this. I only had ten pages (double spaced) to work with. I could barely even scratch the surface with that. I will be on Christmas break here soon, so I plan to write some more posts on beauty and why the subject has been of interest to me lately. I’ll be able to get into more depth and detail then.
Throughout the tradition of western thought, truth, goodness, and beauty are three terms which are always discussed together. The world is delineated into the polarities of true and false, good and evil, and the beautiful and ugly. Truth finds itself in the spheres of thought and logic, goodness resides in actions and morals, and we are to enjoy beauty in aesthetic works. That is not to say these regimes are isolated from one another. Moral treatises discuss the spiritual beauty of a noble man with a virtuous character, scientists find an ineffable beauty in the structure and order of the universe, and poets attempt to crystallize beauty in a scene, in a face, or in a deed. There is certainly an overlap in these ideas, and they are difficult to untangle; beauty in particular is a very difficult concept to pin down. If beauty is entirely subjective, if it is simply adherence to the arbitrary customs of a particular time and place, then it is not something that can be defined. On the other hand, if it is objective, if it is something immediately apparent to any observer like other simple sensible qualities, then why is so much discussion required to sharpen our perception of it? The truth seems to lie somewhere inbetween, and whatever beauty is, it always seems to escape rigid definition. Despite these difficulties, modern science is attempting to shed new light on very old questions in the relatively new and rapidly growing field of neuroaesthetics. This discipline uses neuroscience to explain and understand aesthetic experiences at the neurological level. Using cognitive models, sophisticated brain scanners, and evolutionary theory, these neuroscientists are finally making some headway in the formerly intractable domain of the philosophy of beauty, though their progress is limited and there is a long way to go.
If one carefully looks through the literature, a reader will see that aesthetic judgments rely on a vast interplay of many different factors. Most research relates to the visual aesthetics of images, such as paintings or computer graphics, but there is also significant work dealing with music as well. The field has slowly been developing and adhering to an aesthetic model (Leder 2004) which captures the key processes of aesthetic experience, and while it mostly pertains to visual imagery, it can also be applied to other areas as well. This model (Figure 1) is useful in providing a general framework by which to organize the discussion in this text, though it must be noted that many important works in this field pay no mind to this model. This text will highlight a handful of studies which fit within the model and then move to some which do not.
Looking at the top of the model, the reader will see that every aesthetic experience happens within a certain context. If a person is told they are looking at a work of art, this will put the brain in a certain aesthetic orientation, and research has shown (Cupchik, Vartanian, Crawley, and Mikulis 2009) that his brain will process the information differently than it would have otherwise. When in an aesthetic orientation, brain scans reveal a much higher activation in anterior prefrontal regions. When not in this frame of mind, the brain processes the image almost entirely in occipital regions, related to perceptual processing. An aesthetic attitude primes the mind, creating an expectation of pleasure which heavily influences the intensity of pleasure experienced by the viewer (Kirk, Skov, Hulme, Christensen, and Zeki 2009). This effect can be very powerful. For example, if you present images of a beautiful city to people, yet tell them that the area of town is known for its terrible crime rate, they will rate the images and the people they see in them with a much lower beauty score than if you tell them it is a peaceful place which is wonderful to raise children (Leder et al. 2010).
Many aesthetic theories try to explain the various aspects of aesthetic perception by carefully analyzing the different stages of the perceptual process, and this is illustrated in the beginning stages of Leder’s model. For example, you can place colored shapes onto different colored backgrounds and ask people to rate the appearance. Research has shown that a strong contrast between the shape and the background is preferred (Reber, Winkielman, and Schwarz 1998). Why? These researchers say it is due to an idea called processing fluency. Basically, the brain is a lazy instrument and the more easily it can process an object, the more it will reward the person. They claim this also explains why we humans like things to be symmetric; symmetric objects are easier to process. It sounds plausible, but other research indicates that it cannot be the entire picture. If you show a person complex nature images but meddle with the contrast, you can change the image’s beauty rating without changing its processing fluency (Tinio and Leder 2009); contrast was found to have no impact on how quickly participants could identify the displayed images’ contents. Also, if the brain preferred to experience the same thing over and over, boredom would not exist. So this gets rather complicated. The brain seems to like things it is comfortable and familiar with, but it also craves new information and experiences. This has led researchers (Biederman and Vessel 2006) to propose models as to why people crave new experiences and grow tired of familiar experiences with repeated exposure. It is claimed this is due to the distribution of mu-opioid receptors in the brain and competitive learning. The density of opioid receptors increases as you reach deeper levels in cortical processing and repetition weakens the amount of positive stimulation. Their hypothesis proposes that the rate of endomorphin release in parahippocampal cortex determines, at least partially, our human preference for experiences that are both novel (because they are yet to undergo competitive learning) as well as those open to many interpretations (because such patterns would initially activate, through associations, many dense regions of mu-opioid receptors). There is evidence to support this point of view as well. For example, many music listeners report experiencing “chills” while listening to certain stirring pieces of music. If you give them the drug naloxone (Goldstein 1980), a mu-opiod antagonist that prevents endorphins from binding to these receptors, the chills disappear. There is a lot of debate in this area.
Other researchers are avoiding the use of complicated models to explain beauty. One experiment (Ishizu, T. & Zeki, S. 2011) had subjects look at pictures of paintings and listen to musical excerpts and then rate them on a scale of 1-9, with 9 being the most beautiful. Three sets of stimuli were created from these ratings – beautiful, indifferent, and ugly – and the subjects viewed and listened to these stimuli while being scanned by an fMRI machine. The results showed that while several areas were active during this process, only one cortical area, located in medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC), was active during the experience of both musical and visual beauty. They found that the more activation present in the mOFC, the stronger the reported intensity of the experience of beauty. Studies judging human sexual attraction report similar results (Ishai, A. 2007). Herero- and homosexual men and women were asked to evaluate the attractiveness of human faces. In heterosexual women and homosexual men, attractive male faces elicited stronger activation in their mOFCs than attractive female faces, whereas in heterosexual men and homosexual women, attractive female faces evoked stronger activation than attractive male faces. These approaches are valuable in that they tell us which area of the brain is responsible for our subjective sense of beauty, but they do not bring us closer to understanding what beauty is or why some things are judged beautiful and other things are not.
It is also possible to explain some aspects of our sense of beauty using evolutionary explanations, though it is difficult to find a clear evolutionary purpose for our aesthetic appreciation of art and music. If we want to argue that that an aesthetic appreciation is biologically ingrained in all human beings, these claims must be proven to be independent of any particular culture. This is difficult to achieve, however, there are studies which have demonstrated cross cultural aesthetic stimuli which are appreciated regardless of culture. Research has shown (Orians and Heerwagen, 1992) that nearly all children, regardless of their race, gender, or culture, are drawn to nature images which resemble the East African landscapes in which our species evolved. These images feature savannahs with a variety of open wooded spaces (for living and hiding), a body of water (for drinking), and trees with low hanging branches (for gathering fruit and escaping). This preference seems to be ingrained in most of us, and these preferred landscapes are found all over in calendars, screensavers, and murals worldwide (Dutton 2003). As a person grows older, they may think of all the mosquitoes, the crocodiles, and other dangers in that landscape, and all of these sorts of things may change their subjective preferences for a particular environment over another; but humans seem to be born with a default appreciation for East African landscapes. However, it is important to keep in mind that while this idea is plausible, these sorts of explanations fall victim to the same difficulties all evolutionary explanations do. No matter what theory you have, you can always make up an evolutionary reason why such and such must be the case. Why do people cooperate? That supposedly helps contribute to gene perpetuation. Why do people fight? It means their genes perpetuate and not somebody else’s. So do we like savannahs because they are where we evolved? Maybe, but it could be something else entirely.
There are also neuroscientists attempting to explain our appreciation for abstract art using evolutionary ideas (Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1999). The authors introduce eight laws of aesthetic experience, a set of heuristics artists either consciously or unconsciously use to optimally stimulate the visual areas of the brain. One such law is called the peak shift phenomenon, a neuroaesthetic principle which states that if an organism is instinctually or conditionally trained to respond to a stimulus, it will respond even more intensely to extreme versions of the stimulus. For example, it is well known that if a rat is taught to discriminate a square from a rectangle then rewarded for the rectangle, it will respond even more intensely if it is shown a longer and skinner rectangle. But what does this have to do with aesthetics? Take the highly sexualized cartoon character Jessica Rabbit from the popular movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. What is it about how she is drawn that makes her so sexual? Jessica is a caricature of the female form which has been highly amplified. To make a figure like hers, you start with a normal woman’s body and then subtract away the average of all human bodies. This leaves you with an essence of the female form, the perceptual differences that make a female’s body female. Then you take this essence and amplify it into a distorted caricature. If a person is attracted to females, their mind will respond to this caricature in the same way the rat does to longer, skinnier rectangles. These ideas are informed speculation and it would be interesting to investigate whether the mOFCs of those attracted to women would be highly stimulated by Jessica Rabbit animations, even more so than realistic female forms.
This text only briefly highlights a few studies in a very new and exciting field. Neuroscientists are slowly building a model of the aesthetic process, but considering the infancy of neuroaesthetics, research is still all over the place. Most ongoing research deals with visual imagery and music. Many different plausible ideas are being proposed to explain different aesthetic experiences, but in general, there are disagreements, even when it comes to simple things like why we like one colored shape as opposed to another. Some researchers, like Zeki, choose to define beauty not in terms of a complicated model, but in the strength of activation within the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC). While this may be the best we can do for now, overall it is unsatisfactory. What we want are general principles of aesthetic perception, similar to Ramachandran’s eight laws of aesthetics. Even so, we are a long way from arriving at a complete list of these principles and we have not even begun to tackle tougher issues, such as moral beauty or why a physicist finds a mathematical equation beautiful. Still, it is refreshing any progress is being made at all. Questions of beauty are as old civilization itself and little progress has been made since the ancient Greeks. As technology allows us to probe the minute details of the brain, we’re sure to uncover what the mOFC and other brain areas are doing along with the general aesthetic principles behind how they operates.
Biederman, I., & Vessel, E. A. (2006). Perceptual pleasure and the brain. American Scientist, 95, 249 –255.
Cupchik, G. C., Vartanian, O., Crawley, A., & Mikulis, D. J. (2009). Viewing artworks: Contributions of cognitive control and perceptual facilitation to aesthetic experience. Brain and Cognition, 70, 84 –91.
Dutton D (2003) Aesthetics and evolutionary psychology. In: The oxford handbook for aesthetics (Levinson J., ed), pp 693-705. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goldstein, A. 1980. Thrills in response to music and other stimuli. Physiological Psychology 8:126-129.
Ishai, A. (2007) Sex, beauty and the orbitofrontal cortex. Int. J. Psychophysiol., 63, 181–185
Ishizu, T. & Zeki, S. (2011) Toward a brain-based theory of beauty. PLoS ONE, 6, e21852.
Kirk, U., Skov, M., Hulme, O., Christensen, M. S., & Zeki, S. (2009). Modulation of aesthetic value by semantic context: An fMRI study. NeuroImage, 44, 1125–1132.
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Leder, H., Tinio, P. P. L., Fuchs, I. M., & Bohrn, I. (2010). When attractiveness demands longer looks: The effects of situation and gender. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63, 1858 –1871.
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Tinio, P. P. L., & Leder, H. (2009). Just how stable are stable aesthetic features? Symmetry, complexity, and the jaws of massive familiarization. Acta Psychologica, 130, 241–250.
November 29, 2015
You’ve probably all heard about the recent attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. A 57 year old man went into the place, gunning down three people and injuring nine others. We all wonder to ourselves, “How can this happen?” Well, if you watched the Republican debates, you probably saw the candidates attacking Planned Parenthood, telling crowds of people that the organization is chopping up babies and selling their body parts for money.
Where they come up with this stuff, I have no idea, but media outlets like Fox News have been playing this up for months now. What better way to get their base stirred up? Abortion is an issue dear to most conservatives, and they were using this sort of rhetoric to make people believe that Hillary and Obama support an organization guilty of these atrocities. In his statement, the shooter specifically told the police, “no more baby parts.” He felt this was a holy cause and he was defending unborn babies.
We all know this is terrible, but I want use this incident to point out how there is double standard progressives use when criticizing religion. Progressive websites like the Huffington Post are railing on about how Colorado Springs is “America’s Christian Mecca”, and these backward beliefs can be linked to this sort of violence. The article rightly points out,
Local politicians have also been vocal about speaking out against abortion. In March, state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt (R-Colorado Springs) said that God had cursed America for its stance on abortion after a stranger stabbed a Colorado woman and ripped her baby from her womb.
“This is the curse of God upon America for our sin of not protecting innocent children in the womb,” Klingenschmitt said at the time. “Part of that curse for our rebellion against God as a nation is that our pregnant women are ripped open.”
So ok, backward religious beliefs can cause a minority of people who really believe in their faith to act on those beliefs. It’s a real problem. I’m in complete agreement.
But how come when different intellectuals, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or even the talk show host Bill Maher criticize Islam for a lot of similar backward beliefs, they are “Islamaphobic”. They’re labelled as bigots, racists, and anti-Semitic, and all debate on the topic is shut down. When we see videos like the one below, are we not allowed to discuss them? The leader asks his congregation if they believe that women who commit adultery should be stoned to death. They all raise their hands. He asks them if women should be isolated from making any decisions within their society. They all raise their hands. He asks them if they agree that all gays should be executed there on the spot. They all raise their hands. Then he goes on to say, “We all believe this way.”
There are a lot of backward beliefs floating around in Islamic culture which must be criticized. People who address these issues, fighting for gay rights and women’s rights are not bigots, racist, or Islamaphobes. Religion should not be immune from criticism.
You know what Huffington Post, you’re a Christaphobe! Christians everywhere, it’s time to rise up and scream, “Not in my name!” How could you possibly link this atrocity to Christian dogma? Millions of Christians live peacefully everyday, and now you’re going to associate this backward stigma on them, that they’re violent and liable to terrorist like acts due to their religious beliefs? Shame on you! Where’s Ben Affleck?
Ok, I’m not being serious. You’re not a Christaphobe. You should rightfully criticize backward, irrational religious beliefs. Just go a little further. Criticize Islam too. You can do it. There’s just as much stupidity in the Quran as is in the Bible. Culture is something that must be open for discussion and debate.
But progressives don’t view it this way. They are motivated by cultural Marxist beliefs. They stick up for Islam because in the U.S. Muslims are a minority. There are no Christaphobes because Christians are perceived as the majority in power. There’s no need to protect them with social taboos. They stick up for people who they feel don’t have a voice. This includes transgenders, gays, blacks, or whoever else is a minority. They feel they must run to the aid of any minority and protect them from criticism. It sounds noble, but it’s a poisonous set of ideas. Whoever perceives themselves as a victim or a minority comes to believe that their ideas should be immune from criticism. Anyone who criticizes them or their ideas gets some evil word attached to them and society is supposed to shun them. Everything becomes racist, sexist, and bigoted; the words lose their meaning. Any idea, no matter who believes it, is subject to criticism.
November 15, 2015
I often look into the eyes of animals and think, “This animal is conscious and alive, just like I am. It feels emotions, it has an awareness of its surroundings and where it is, and it knows hunger and pain.” This is definitely true of higher order primates, like chimpanzees. The question is, how different are we? Well, let’s take chimpanzees. Our genetic makeup is 98.9% the same. What makes up the 1.1% difference?
Half of that difference has to do with our sense of smell. Chimpanzees can smell far better than we can. What about the rest? Well, there’s some genes which account for our difference in pelvic arch, allowing us to walk upright. There are genes for growing hair (their fur), and we find some minor differences in our immune systems. All in all, that pretty much makes up the entire difference between us.
But wait. If that’s the case, why are we so much more intelligent? In short, we’re not, but the little intelligence difference we do have is based on a few genes which cause our brain cells to divide several times more during fetal development, leading us to have three times the number of neurons. That’s it.
It’s probably not quite this simple, but if you flipped those few genes in a chimp, we’d have a chimp with a human brain. I’m guessing it’d be able to do calculus, compose music, and write novels. It’s something to think about.
November 8, 2015
I have no idea who will win the Republican nomination, but the Democratic party seems to be split between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. I wanted to highlight some important differences between the candidates and why I think Bernie Sanders is far more principled.
In the video posted below, you’ll see that Hillary changes her positions whenever it’s convenient. She was for the Iraq war , but now that we the people realized it was a fiasco, she now claims it was a mistake. She was staunchly against gay marriage, but now that gay rights is an important issue for many people, she has flip-flopped. Now she’s claiming to be a gay-rights champion and that she’s always been. She was for the Patriot Act until Edward Snowden exposed it and other programs for what they are; now she acts like she’s always been opposed to these unconstitutional programs. Hillary used to be anti-immigration, not unlike what you see in the Republican debates. Now she portrays herself as their new champion (and claims she’s always been on their side). As for the war on drugs, Hillary supported it, but now that people are fighting for marijuana’s legalization and have become aware of how many people are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, she has changed her position. Hillary licks her fingers and feels the political breeze and then says whatever she has to say to get elected. Then when she gets into office, she votes for any bill which serves the powerful interests who fund her campaigns. If you visit opensecrets.org, I encourage you to look at Hillary Clinton’s top donors. Who do you think she’ll represent?
Bernie Sanders was always against the Iraq war. He was against the Gulf War. He was against all the wars. He was against the Patriot Act, and was (I believe) the only senator to vote against it. He’s always championed universal healthcare and fought against big financial interests. He’s always argued that a college degree is now the equivalent of a high-school diploma, and that college tuition should be paid for in full. He’s always been against the war on drugs. He’s always been a champion of gay rights, even when, in his early career, it completely ostracized him from his peers. His positions have been the same throughout his entire career. As for Bernie’s supporters, they’re all individual people who donate, on average, $33.00. He does not even have a SuperPAC.
I was moved watching him deliver his speech to an empty room, warning against the wars in the middle east, how much it would cost us, and how it would destabilize the region. I like people who are consistent and principled. I don’t have to agree with them on every issue, but I like knowing who I’m voting for and what they’re about.
Why do I feel Bernie is the best candidate of all of them? I know this guy will help the poor get health insurance, will help young people pay for their college, will end the wars, will focus our resources toward our failing infrastructure, end the government’s programs spying on all of us (and the world), will end the war on drugs, and most of all, he would get money out of politics. Considering he’s the only one without a SuperPAC, he seems just the man to do it.
August 13, 2015
Beauty is a strange thing. I’ve often wondered why human brains are so concerned with it. There was an old song I loved as a teenager by the band Counting Crows called Mr. Jones. In it they sing,
“I was down at the New Amsterdam staring at this
Mr. Jones strikes up a conversation with this black-
haired flamenco dancer
She dances while his father plays guitar
She’s suddenly beautiful
We all want something beautiful
I wish I was beautiful”
When most people think of beauty, they think of sexual attraction and I guess I’ll talk that for now. If I were to ask most people why we feel this sense of beauty in the opposite gender (or if you’re gay, same gender), they’ll say it evolved to stir us to reproduce. Men and women are drawn to one another so that we’ll procreate and have babies. There’s no doubt that’s true, but that doesn’t explain most of it.
If you look at the animal kingdom you see some rather bizarre mating rituals. For example, to impress a female, male hippos will stick their rear end in the female’s face, defecate, and then sling their feces all over with their tail. Giraffes will dip their long necks down to one another’s rear ends and pee on one another’s faces to drink and exchange urine. The classiest of all may be the birds of paradise, who build elaborate, colorful nests, sing songs, and perform articulate, graceful dances for their partners.
What does any of this have to do with survival? What does any of this have to do with anything?
The other day I had someone recommend I watch a show on MTV called Catfish. It’s about people who fall in love online but they’ve never met in real life. Along with the hosts, they track one another down, meet up, and oftentimes find out the person they fell in love with isn’t who they say they are. Anyways. I wanted to share my state of mind watching an episode.
One episode began by showing this absolutely beautiful woman and her Instagram account. She was a young, twenty year old woman, who was working as a waitress. Her hair, face, body, she was just perfect. As I stared at the screen, I found myself wondering, “Why am I attracted to this woman as opposed to others.” There was nothing interesting or compelling about the young woman’s personality. She didn’t seem particularly intelligent. Yet here my mind was saying, “Now this woman here. That’s someone to mate with. Right there.” People often say that woman just won the genetic lottery.
The show featured her trying to get in touch with another guy she met online. He was in a band and looked like Justin Bieber. He was wearing gold chains, wore his hat backwards and to the side, had stylish hair, and six pack abs. He was a sort of singer/rapper who played guitar, and when these two met up he sang her a corny love song about how nervous he was and how bad he wanted to meet her. He was apparently cool and this lovely woman was mesmerized. Hippos sling feces, we make squealing voices, strum on a wind instrument, and look into one another’s eyes while wrapping ourselves in dead plant fibers.
It’s particularly interesting to note that when we perceive beauty, nothing supernatural is going on. Neuroscientists have narrowed down the exact areas of the brain which judge beauty. I’ll show you.
When the Counting Crows told us that we all want to be beautiful, they were saying we all wish we could look at ourselves in the mirror and those little red areas of our brains would fire with just the right sort of electrical storms. In fact, neuroscientists have identified the exact sort of electrical patterns needed to create a subjective sense of beauty, and ugliness too.
So when I was looking at that young beautiful woman on the screen, my medial orbito-frontal cortex was pulsing with just the right voltages and patterns, leading me to say, “Wow, she’s pretty.” If this brain area of my head was damaged, I would lose an important planning network of my reward system. I would become hypersexual, swear excessively, become a compulsive gambler, and likely fall into drug use.
What I find interesting about this is that I could rewire this brain area and make anything beautiful or anything ugly. I could make a fat, old, ugly woman the most beautiful creature you’ve ever laid eyes and that young pretty girl hideous. In fact, I could make you completely mesmerized by an old dirty shoe in a junkyard. You’d look at it and think you’d seen an object from heaven. I could make you love the smell of vomit and hate flowers. It’s just a complicated neural network of electrical signals. It would be hard to change, but not impossible in theory.
Earlier today I was thinking about how this applies to religion. Christians dream of dying and going to heaven, which is supposedly a beautiful realm without pain. Well, why do we think this world isn’t beautiful? Why do we need mansions, open fields filled with flowers, and angelic clouds? It’s our medial orbito-frontal cortex and the ways our sensory systems are wired into our amygdala and limbic systems. The universe evolved to become self-aware and as certain emotional and sensory systems developed they wired themselves into emotional systems and the human organism came to look at itself and its environment in strange ways, telling itself it needs to change the natural order of world into some other form.
Every other animal is fine walking around naked. They’re fine with nature as it is. They build structures to escape the elements, protect valuable turf, and provide for their young, but that’s it. Most other animals (besides the birds of paradise, say), will mate with any appropriate member of their species. They’re not picky. If the female’s body is symmetric, a gazelle will mate with another gazelle. Same with seals, dogs, and gophers. Humans are just quirky.
Take that young boy singing to that pretty girl with his guitar. What’s going on here? Why this bizarre mating ritual? Well, as humans were evolving, we were developing a sense of language by uttering sounds to one another and gestures. We all know that various grunts and utterings carry emotional contexts. Someone may be angrily yelling or whimpering in pain. They’re totally different sounds and our brains slowly evolved to process sounds in a way and interpret the emotion behind them. These sound processing systems were slowly and gradually connected up to our emotional centers.
Music is a form of emotional communication through sound. It probably started out by our brains evolving processing systems for emotional grunts and other things, but certain components of the sounds began to be processed in universal ways, and so certain types of sounds changing over time became linked directly to certain emotional centers. It was intended for speech and grunts, but we started singing and banging instruments and found we could induce emotions through playing instruments. And so, music evolved in humans right alongside language.
I’ve been studying all of this a lot lately. There’s a lot of research into why we find art beautiful. What draws us to certain paintings and what happens in our brains when look at a work of Picasso? Why do we like music? I’ll have to share a lot more of what I’ve found out another time. I want to more deeply understand beauty and aesthetics in the human mind.