Beauty and The Brain

Beautiful Rose | Graphic Design Blog

It’s famously stated that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, there are many fields of study which prove that we all engage with beauty in some way or form, and in fact, beauty also engages us. For one, the emerging field of neuroaesthetics somewhat controversially plays with the idea that we are all biologically beholden to the power of aesthetics.

Aesthetics is an offshoot of philosophy, dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste alongside the creation and appreciation of these elements combined. While aesthetics has long sat amongst the humanities’ lofty branches, it also bleeds into the sciences owing to its effect on the sensory and sensory-emotional values (sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste.) More broadly, scholars in the field define aesthetics as “the critical reflection on art, culture, and nature.” Neuroaesthetics, on the other hand, is the merging of the humanities and even broader scientific areas, including neuroscience, neurobiology and cultural studies. The discipline looks even deeper at what’s happening biologically in the brain when we look at a piece of art or a beautiful face.

“The question of beauty is something that science has traditionally shied away from,” said Nancy L. Etcoff, an assistant clinical professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School in an article for the Harvard Crimson. “It didn’t seem answerable or definable. Happiness is another one. There are a lot of books on negative emotions like disgust, fear, anger.” But beauty? “Beauty is one of life’s basic pleasures,” Etcoff said. “We want to keep it near us. We feel more sympathy and compassion for, and are elevated and enriched by what is beautiful.” And thanks to science, the experience of beauty can finally be quantified.

In an experiment discussed by Anjan Chatterjee in the Ted Talk “How your brain decides what is beautiful”  a group of participants were given a series of faces and asked to decide if certain pairs were the same or a different person. The test administrators found that even when the directive was to simply pair likeness, not rate beauty, attractive faces still drove neural activity in their visual cortex. Another group similarly found automatic responses to symmetry and good looks within our pleasure centers. When reviewed together, these studies suggest that our brain automatically responds to beauty by combining vision and pleasure.

This is why we often link attractiveness with “goodness” — the orbitofrontal cortex overlaps neural activity in this area which reflexively tells us beauty equals good. Unfortunately, in society, this is also why beautiful people are more likely to be deemed trustworthy, earn higher wages and are given more leniency than those who are considered less attractive.

We are naturally wired to respond to beauty… which can lead us down a dark, complex path when it comes to justice and human nature. However, knowing that our brains are biologically built to react to beautiful things, let’s swing this back around to design. When shopping for a brand we are immediately drawn to colors, lines and form that fire up that part in our brain that tells us: “this is beautiful.” Meaning we’re more likely to buy products with alluring packaging because that little spot in our frontal cortex so encouragingly whispers that this lovely thing must also be good… so good, in fact, that we need it.

As a brand, first impressions are crucial. There’s a lot of information out there. There’s also a lot of competition out there. How do we cut through the noise and make something impactful enough to get people to stop and pay attention? We know beauty stops people in their tracks, so is it all that bad to just make something beautiful simply because it speaks to our collective, unconscious desire for it?

We don’t think so.

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