Beauty can be everlasting, ephemeral {internet sensations} and above all else, in the eye of the beholder. Poets and artists have explored this mystery for centuries, but can science reveal new insights?

Ed Yong at DiscoverBlogs recently wrote about a fascinating brain imaging study done that begins to address this question, exploring visual and musical stimuli. Yes, beauty can be express itself in many other ways, but this is a start.

Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London watched the brains of 21 volunteers as they looked at 30 paintings and listened to 30 musical excerpts. All the while, they were lying inside an fMRI scanner, a machine that measures blood flow to different parts of the brain and shows which are most active. The recruits rated each piece as “beautiful”, “indifferent” or “ugly”.

The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones – the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.

The figure below demonstrates how our brains react to beauty, and to ugliness:


Averaged parameter estimates showing modulation by beauty rating (Beautiful, Indifferent and Ugly) in mOFC for (A) visual stimuli (at −6 41-11) and (B) musical stimuli at −3 41-8. A linear relationship with beauty rating was observed in both conditions.

It is extraordinary that such a complex phenomenon shows a linear correlation!

It turns out that it is even possible to scramble these two very different perceptions, transforming “pretty” faces into “ugly” or even grotesque. Try the experiment below, referred to as the Flashed Face Distortion Effect. As you watch the brief video, focus on the cross in the center of the screen and your perception of beauty and ugliness will begin to scramble!

We describe a novel face distortion effect resulting from the fast-paced presentation of eye-aligned faces. When cycling through the faces on a computer screen, each face seems to become a caricature of itself and some faces appear highly deformed, even grotesque. The degree of distortion is greatest for faces that deviate from the others in the set on a particular dimension (eg if a person has a large forehead, it looks particularly large). This new method of image presentation, based on alignment and speed, could provide a useful tool for investigating contrastive distortion effects and face adaptation.

Photo sources: The selection of which images can be as varied as the human condition. Choosing musical selections would be equally challenging; perhaps Chopin’s Etudes or Bach’s Goldberg Variations?




  1. #1 Warwick Rowell
    July 12, 2011

    In Nature of Order Christopher Alexander reports on a convincing experiment he did with his students, to establish the hypothesis that 95% of people will agree on what is beautiful/appealing/attractive. He then goes on to argue that we should focus on making our houses, rooms, towns, suburbs more like that. Very potent stuff. Over the four volumes he gives hundreds of paired photos to demonstrate the principles he extracts. Only one (for me) is at all ambiguous.