by Whitney Hung, Leon Koch-Mehrin, Carole Leung, Kamila Smyk
If money, power and cheesy-curly-fries are capable of inducing the same feelings of pleasure as beautiful art or music, then what is the importance of a neuroaesthetic finding regarding these artistic practices?
Currently, two brain regions, the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), have been associated with the experience of various dimensions of beauty (see picture below). The same brain regions are activated when experiencing pleasure whilst doing drugs, devouring delicious tacos or having sex. How then, does beauty differ, and can it be dissociated from pleasure? Dr. Tomohiro Ishizu at the University College London has dedicated his research to the aesthetics experience and to decomposing the nature of pleasure and beauty to answer the question: “Is beauty pleasure?”.
Pleasure and Valence
Tomohiro agrees beauty is mostly pleasure - gazing at an attractive face or marveling at a mathematical equation is simply put; an enjoyable experience. However, he believes the pleasure we derive from beauty may possess characteristics that are absent in pleasure acquired from consuming a burger or taking drugs. The act of mating, getting high or eating are regarded as primary rewards and inevitably lead to high positive valence. In other words, they simply feel good. Fundamentally, this is also true when we see something beautiful. However, beauty has the potential characteristic of being negatively valenced. Take for example the image presented below; the photo can be regarded as appealing, yet one might feel afflicted too. The shot of a young girl kneeling beside a grave may evoke feelings of grief and fear. This is an example of sorrowful-beauty- a mixture of a positive aesthetic experience charged with negative valence.
Tomohiro empirically tested the idea of sorrowful-beauty (Ishizu & Zeki, 2017). Participants rated a plethora of images on two dimensions; valence and aesthetic value. It was indeed possible for images to be experienced as joyfully or sorrowfully beautiful. Brain scans confirmed the mOFC and vmPFC were not only active during joyful-beauty conditions but also during the sorrow-beauty conditions. The latter also showed functional activity between the mOFC and brain regions known to play a key role in sympathy. This network may be what enables us to experience beauty in emotionally-negative stimuli. Tomohiro concludes that, unlike pleasure, beauty seems to have the capacity to be negatively valenced.
Although the results suggest there may be something different in pleasure derived from beauty rather than primary rewards, answering the question: “is beauty pleasure?” remains difficult - in part due to its poor formulation. With so many forms of pleasurable experiences, it is unclear what is meant by “pleasure.” To better define the term, we must take a closer look at rewards.
Pleasure, Reward, and the Brain
Tomohiro described how reward can be subdivided into two types: physiological and non-physiological. The physiological concerns everything that our bodies demand: food, water, sex and shelter, which are considered ‘primary rewards’. These biological needs keep us in physiological homeostasis and in turn; satisfied. This subtype of reward also has a secondary component, which encapsulates the things we require to attain said physiological homeostasis: money, tokens and power. Having money can provide us with shelter and food, whereas power makes us more desirable in the eyes of potential mates.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is non-physiological reward, which entails social interactions, moral acts, and all forms of artistic expression, such as visual arts and music. These intrinsic rewards are not first in line to ensure survival and physiological homeostasis. In fact, they go against optimisation of survival of the individual. Paradoxically, these are often, but not always, considered to be the essence of human existence.
What’s more, a social interaction may have either positive or negative repercussions - positive or negative valence. Similarly, an artistic experience or an encounter with beauty may produce positive or negative feelings, which contrasts with physiological rewards, which produce positive valence only.
Tomohiro then shared several previous brain imaging studies examining brain activation in response to rewarding things or events like facial beauty, altruistic donations, etc. He concluded that processing physiological reward would activate both the ventral striatum (VS) (in particular, the nucleus accumbens NAcc) and the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC); whereas processing non-physiological reward would dominantly activate the OFC.
Tomohiro also pointed out that in fact, each reward region is connected to other brain regions. The VS has strong connection with areas around and, in the midbrain, like globus pallidus, substantia nigra (SN)/ ventral tegmental area (VTA), and thalamus. The OFC has connections with the frontal parts of the brain, like lateral prefrontal cortex and sensory cortex.
With a firm grip on the brain regions that are active for each type of rewards, it is possible to explain the differences between the two types of reward processing with regard to the functioning of the brain regions. The VS and its connected areas are for fast and autonomic processing of sensory information, thus, the areas process biologically-based beauty and the person would experience physiological pleasure. The OFC and its connected areas are responsible for cognitive inferences and top-down regulations. Their processing speed are slower, compared to the VS areas. Hence, the areas process high-order beauty and the person would experience intrinsic pleasure.
Back to the Question - Is Beauty Pleasure?
So, to answer the question, “is beauty pleasure?” Tomohiro suggests the answer is positive for physiological rewards, which leads to physiological pleasure and therefore, is categorised as “biological beauty”. And negative, such as for intrinsic pleasure, which doesn’t lead to mere physiological pleasure, thus being categorised as “high-order beauty”.
Aristotle noted that human happiness and well-being largely consists of two components: Hedonia and Eudaimonia. Hedonia is pure happiness, such behaviours as mating, safe shelter and nutrition etc., they optimise individual survival and the physically rewarding feedback reinforces the act. Eudaemonia, on the other hand is having meaning and feeling purpose. This is important for both individuals and the society to build a strong community, including self-sacrificing acts, altruistic behaviour, and moral behaviour; however, these do not carry physiological rewards. As a consequence, there’s a lack of reinforcement for these behaviours. How, then, are these behaviours preserved?
Tomohiro wraps up the talk by suggesting a philosophical model, as depicted above. What reinforces eudaimonia is feeling beauty in the actions, rather than the physiological rewards. Because we feel beauty in altruistic acts, they can motivate towards altruistic behaviours and this suggests why we have different types of beauty.
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