Is there such a thing as objective beauty? If so, what defines it and why are we able to appreciate it? Is beauty distinct from what we desire?
Traditionally, these have been questions reserved for philosophers (of both the academic and bar-room variety). However, neuroscientists have recently started to address these issues experimentally, and their research has uncovered some surprising results.
The latest example of this is a paper in today's issue of Neuron. A research team led by Hans C. Breiter has found that the sight of a beautiful face can activate the “reward circuitry” of the brain, the same circuitry that is known to respond to drugs, pleasant tastes, or money.
But this activation does not necessarily reflect the face's aesthetic value. In Breiter's experiment, a group of heterosexual males were able to agree on the relative attractiveness or unattractiveness of different faces, both male and female.
However, they only found the pictures of attractive females “rewarding”: when viewing the pictures involved an active effort on their part, they only made this effort to view beautiful females. More importantly, attractive female faces activated the reward circuitry in their brains to the greatest degree.
In other words, heterosexual men would agree that both Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts are good-looking, but they would only want Julia. This is hardly a revelation, but Breiter's work suggests that “beauty” and “desire” are not merely distinct concepts but they also reflect different activity patterns in our brain. Hence, the marriage of philosophy and neuroscience is brought one step closer.
[Contact: Hans C. Breiter]