Arts and minds

Scientists are discovering how love, art and beauty affect our brains.

According to the 19th-century poet Keats, beauty is truth, truth beauty, and “that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”. Modern neuroscientists beg to differ. They want to know much more. Today the UK’s largest medical research charity will announce that it is ploughing £1 million into the search for the nerve mechanisms that explain beauty – and with it love, truth and happiness.

The work is controversial because for the first time, brain researchers are scientifically measuring abstract concepts that artists, philosophers and clerics have long regarded as eternal.
The work is being led by Semir Zeki, the Professor of Neurobiology at University College London – one of a group of scientists who are using functional MRI brain scanning to study the “neural correlates of subjective mental states” – in layman’s terms, what happens in the brain when we experience strong feelings.

Zeki’s research has already revealed that beauty really does have a seat in the brain. Scanning the brains of volunteers looking at paintings they classified as ugly or beautiful, he found that beauty engaged a part of the brain called the orbito-frontal cortex. For Zeki, it was a rejection of Plato’s view that beauty had an independent existence of its own, but an affirmation of the more Kantian view that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Measuring the truth of beauty

“What my studies show,” Zeki says, “is that when you view a painting you regard to be beautiful, not only is there activity in the orbito-frontal cortex, but the more beautiful you perceive something to be, the more activity there is. So what you can say is that there is now an objective measurement of a subjective feeling. And you can also say that if you know something to be beautiful, that subjective opinion is far more important than any objective measurement.

Source - Times

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