Beholding beauty: How it's been studied

Scientists are still trying to figure out what beauty means to people.

Story highlights

  • People value symmetry, proportions, averageness of faces
  • There are cultural trends in what in art and music people find beautiful
  • Attractiveness may influence salary, prison sentence
Beauty. We know it when we see it, but what is it?
Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, "We must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses." Burke wrote that in 1756, but it's still being quoted today.
And scientists are still trying to figure out what makes things and people beautiful. In some ways, it's like asking whether your vision of "red" is the same as someone else's -- there's just no way to know for sure, says Denis Pelli, professor of psychology and neural science at New York University.
Still, there's plenty to explore in neuroscience and psychology when it comes to what people find beautiful, to what extent people see beauty in themselves, and what role beauty plays in society.
Beauty and the brain
Regardless of culture, there appear to be certain patterns of brain activity associated with viewing something you find beautiful.
Semir Zeki, professor of neuroesthetics at University College London, studies the neural basis for art appreciation. He has found that the only factor common to all that people find beautiful in art and music is activity in the brain's medial orbital frontal cortex, part of the reward and pleasure center of the brain.
There are cultural trends in what in art and music people find beautiful -- for instance, there's a Japanese preference for asymmetry, compared to a Western ideal of symmetry. This does not apply to faces, however, as it seems that universally people prefer symmetrical faces.
It's also not well understood why people adapt to certain objects of beauty after many exposures, but not others. For instance, you might be bored of a pop song after a few listens, but listen to an opera dozens of times, over a period of years, and still feel emotional about it. Or perhaps there's a painting that you've always admired, whereas another painting loses its splendor after a few viewings.
That makes sense, since we see every single blemish in ourselves, whereas there are plenty of people we consider beautiful to whom we don't get close enough to examine all the little flaws. Perception of beauty may weaken when we do start to recognize those defects, Zeki said.
Brain imaging has been done with facial beauty, too. A recent study in Neuroimage found that self-evaluation of one's own facial attractiveness may be related to self-esteem, based on common patterns of brain activity.
Beauty in the face
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