Summary: Study reveals how the brain processes information about the natural environment and generates an aesthetic appreciation.
Source: Max Planck Institute
How does a view of nature gain its gloss of beauty? We know that the sight of beautiful landscapes engages the brain’s reward systems. But how does the brain transform visual signals into aesthetic ones? Why do we perceive a mountain vista or passing clouds as beautiful?
A research team from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics has taken up this question and investigated how our brains proceed from merely seeing a landscape to feeling its aesthetic impact.
In their study, the research team presented artistic landscape videos to 24 participants. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they measured the participants’ brain activity as they viewed and rated the videos.
Their findings have just been published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
First author A. Ilkay Isik said:
“We would have expected the aesthetic signals to be limited to the brain’s reward systems, but surprisingly, we found them already present in visual areas of the brain while the participants were watching the videos. The activations occurred right next to brain regions deployed in recognizing physical features in movies, such as the layout of a scene or the presence of motion.”
Senior author Edward Vessel suggests that these signals may reflect an early, elemental form of beauty perception:
“When we see something beyond our expectations, local patches of brain tissue generate small ‘atoms’ of positive affect. The combination of many such surprise signals across the visual system adds up to make for an aesthetically appealing experience.”
With this new knowledge, the study not only contributes to our understanding of beauty, but may also help clarify how interactions with the natural environment can affect our sense of well-being.
The results might have potential applications in a variety of fields where the link between perception and emotion is important, such as clinical health care and artificial intelligence.
About this visual neuroscience research news
Source: Max Planck Institute Contact: Keyvan Sarkhosh – Max Planck Institute Image: The image is credited to MPI for Empirical Aesthetics
During aesthetically appealing visual experiences, visual content provides a basis for computation of affectively tinged representations of aesthetic value. How this happens in the brain is largely unexplored.
Using engaging video clips of natural landscapes, we tested whether cortical regions that respond to perceptual aspects of an environment (e.g., spatial layout, object content and motion) were directly modulated by rated aesthetic appeal.
Twenty-four participants watched a series of videos of natural landscapes while being scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and reported both continuous ratings of enjoyment (during the videos) and overall aesthetic judgments (after each video).
Although landscape videos engaged a greater expanse of high-level visual cortex compared to that observed for images of landscapes, independently localized category-selective visual regions (e.g., scene-selective parahippocampal place area and motion-selective hMT+) were not significantly modulated by aesthetic appeal. Rather, a whole-brain analysis revealed modulations by aesthetic appeal in ventral (collateral sulcus) and lateral (middle occipital sulcus, posterior middle temporal gyrus) clusters that were adjacent to scene and motion selective regions.
These findings suggest that aesthetic appeal per se is not represented in well-characterized feature- and category-selective regions of visual cortex. Rather, we propose that the observed activations reflect a local transformation from a feature-based visual representation to a representation of “elemental affect,” computed through information-processing mechanisms that detect deviations from an observer’s expectations.
Furthermore, we found modulation by aesthetic appeal in subcortical reward structures but not in regions of the default-mode network (DMN) nor orbitofrontal cortex, and only weak evidence for associated changes in functional connectivity.
In contrast to other visual aesthetic domains, aesthetically appealing interactions with natural landscapes may rely more heavily on comparisons between ongoing stimulation and well-formed representations of the natural world, and less on top-down processes for resolving ambiguities or assessing self-relevance.