‘Take a look at this drawing of a flower and a butterfly’, designer Richard Seymour once asked hisTED-audience. ‘Look at it and feel. Do you think it is beautiful? Now take another look after I have told you that this drawing was the last act on this world of a five year old girl that died of cancer. Feel again. Do you now experience something different?’
The little experiment made the audience rethink the experience of beauty. A feeling that, though familiar to us all, we do not yet know much about. How does it relate to knowledge, for example? The subject of ‘beauty’ luckily does not only fascinate designers, but also scientists, like neurologist Gabrielle Starr. In her new book ‘Feeling beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience’ she scientifically explores beauty.
Q The experiment with the little girl’s drawing shows that beauty is not limited to our senses. We can perceive something as more (or less) beautiful if we know its context. So do we think beauty or do we feel beauty?
Gabrielle Both. Aesthetic experiences are largely linked to our curiosity about the world, and our desire to engage in it. What we think and believe always shapes what we find beautiful. Besides, it is our cognitive processes that help give rise to the feeling.
Q To what extent is beauty the same as pleasure?
Gabrielle If we don’t evaluate something in terms of pleasure or displeasure we aren’t having an aesthetic experience. But something beautiful isn’t always simply pleasurable. It can be disturbing, sad, or angering—and beautiful too. Stimuli that feel nice may produce preferences, but preferences don’t always lead to us finding beauty in what we simply like. Beauty comes from more complex cognitive processes. In my experimental work with Nava Rubin and Ed Vessel, we found distinct subsystems in the brain, one of which is involved in more automatic pleasures, and another that signals intense aesthetic responses. This latter system involves the default mode network, or DMN. The DMN is an interconnected set of brain regions that supports self-referential thought, as well as our ability to imagine other minds and other places.
Q How long does it take us to decide whether something is or isn’t beautiful? Is that decision often made before we could even think about it?
Gabrielle This is a great question. We don’t know yet. Some researchers have found that we evaluate human beauty without making an explicit judgment—it is incredibly fast. And when it comes to visual evaluations of works of art, those are probably faster than evaluations of significance or our emotional responses. Poems and music may have a slower time course of evaluation. But it is undeniable that sometimes something catches you and holds you, aesthetically, before you can blink an eye or stop to wonder how it has happened.
Q Are there any objects that are beautiful to everyone around the world?
Gabrielle Very few. There is much disagreement about what works of art people consider beautiful. But landscapes and faces are a different story. When it comes to beautiful people and beautiful places, (depending on the study) about 80 or 90 per cent of people are on the same page. That said, any one person’s list of favorites will not be universal.
Q How do you explain the differences?
Gabrielle People with similar experiences agree much more about human beauty than do people with different backgrounds or life histories. People who have similar backgrounds tend to share perspective on human beauty, for example. Siblings who were raised together even more so. Memory and meaning matter. What we learn through experience helps shape our judgments.
Q To what extent do we neurologically understand our concept of beauty? And, in line with this, to what extent is beauty manipulative?
Gabrielle We are pretty close to the beginning of our quest for a full neural understanding of the ways we perceive and experience beauty. There are a lot of open questions, about individual differences, neural subsystems, and cultural differences. We also need to explore more art forms. As far as manipulation goes, I think that beauty can catch us by surprise. Anything we are not ready for can be used to manipulate us. But we are very far from being able to manipulate, neurologically, what people like—in case someone would want to. And I hope no one does.
Q Generally if we see something more often, we tend to appreciate it more than something we have never seen before. On the other hand it is difficult to keep seeing beauty in things you see every day.
Gabrielle This is very interesting. Complex objects tend to take multiple or extended encounters before they “pop” and emerge in aesthetic power. Simpler objects tend to decay at a quicker rate.
Q You state that beauty relies on brain areas involved in emotion, perception, imagery, memory, and language. Can you explain that?
Gabrielle Aesthetic responses are complex, in many cases. And what we “see” is only part of the story. We also extract meaning from what we see in other ways, through matching with linguistic or semantic categories or through comparisons to our own experiences and memories. The emotional responses we have, triggered by the object itself or by what it reminds us of, matter too. Finally, imagery enters as we remember (we might even enter reverie or daydream). Or when our imaginations are piqued and we complete a scene, or wonder: “what if?”. What is really fascinating, though, is that there is compelling evidence for other kinds of imagery, especially motor imagery. This occurs, for example, when we follow the lines of a work of art with the eye, or respond to the gestures and position of a human body.
Q What if a person doesn’t have memory? Or doesn’t experience imagery?
Gabrielle I think it would be very hard to have a complex, gripping aesthetic response without memories. We might like something, and enjoy it, but we would lose interest quickly. There are disorders that eat away at our ability to perceive and experience the beautiful, including Alzheimer’s or depression. Both of these conditions involve disruptions in DMN activity as well as general anhedonia (a reduced sensitivity to pleasure) and lower sensitivity to rewarding activities and objects, all components of aesthetic perception.
Q When it comes to imagery, there are people who experience more vivid imagery than others, but it is extremely rare (barring brain injury) not to have some form of sensory imagery. Most of us experience all the varieties in dreams. If we remember perceiving or feeling something, some of that memory may be available as an image. Finally, motor imagery is pervasive. It accompanies visual images, for little of our visual life is static. But it also accompanies the imagery of sound, as we time the words we hear–or for music and poetry, as we keep the beat.
Gabrielle That said, there are beautiful ideas that are not strongly linked to perception. The idea of perfect justice, for example, may not raise images at all, no matter how beautiful it might be. However, I would bet that many abstract ideas—infinity, for example—often lead to imaginative engagement if you find them moving or powerful. What always pulls me in is the idea of an infinite universe, with all its stars, wormholes, and worlds.
This article was originally published in the tablet issue Plastic Fantastic | The Cardboard Issue