Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The most beautiful brain network

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece here at Skeptophilia about some fascinating new research suggesting that there are links between our perceptions of artistic, musical, and mathematical beauty, and expressed some puzzlement about how those could possibly connect.  In one of those lovely near-synchronicities that happen sometimes, today I happened upon some new(er) research showing what the underlying connection might be -- in one single region of the brain.

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team made up of Edward A. Vessel and Ayse Ilkay Isik (of the Max Planck Institute), Amy M. Belfi (of the Missouri University of Science and Technology), Jonathan L. Stahl (of Ohio State University), and G. Gabrielle Starr (of Pomona College) showed that with different sorts of visual stimuli, our sense of aesthetic pleasure comes from activation of a part of the brain called the default-mode network.  The authors write:
Despite being highly subjective, aesthetic experiences are powerful moments of interaction with one’s surroundings, shaping behavior, mood, beliefs, and even a sense of self.  The default-mode network (DMN), which sits atop the cortical hierarchy and has been implicated in self-referential processing, is typically suppressed when a person engages with the external environment.  Yet not only is the DMN surprisingly engaged when one finds a visual artwork aesthetically moving, here we present evidence that the DMN also represents aesthetic appeal in a manner that generalizes across visual aesthetic domains, such as artworks, landscapes, or architecture.  This stands in contrast to ventral occipitotemporal cortex (VOT), which represents the content of what we see, but does not contain domain-general information about aesthetic appeal.
Using fMRI studies, the researchers compared the responses of the brains of volunteers to three types of visual stimuli; art, architecture, and photographs of natural landscapes.  The responses of the visual cortices of the test subjects showed great variation between these three different types -- evidently the brain's effort to categorize and interpret what it's seeing, so it's no great surprise that you'd respond differently while seeing the Mona Lisa than you would looking at Chartres Cathedral.

What was surprising, though, is that while viewing visual stimuli the test subjects found aesthetically pleasing, all of them had a high response in the default-mode network, which is usually associated with contemplation, imagination, self-reflection, and inward thought.  It's uncertain if the DMN actually encodes the basics of aesthetic response, but this certainly suggests a critical role.  "We don't know yet if DMN actually computes this representation," said Edward Vessel, lead author of the paper, in an interview in EurekAlert.  "But it clearly has access to abstract information about whether we find an experience aesthetically appealing or not."

This suggests to me a couple of interesting directions this research could go.  Obviously, it'd be intriguing to find out of the DMN is also active with other types of aesthetic appreciation (such as musical and mathematical aesthetics, the subject of the previous research).  What I'd find even more fascinating, though, is to see if there's a difference in the activity of the DMN depending upon how strongly the individual is aesthetically moved.  Those responses are so highly individual that finding a biological underpinning would be amazingly cool.  Why, for example, was my wife moved to tears while looking at paintings in a Van Gogh exhibition we attended a couple of years ago in New York City?  Why do I find Édouard Manet's 1882 masterpiece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère so emotionally evocative, while a lot of other art from the same period doesn't really grab me one way or the other?

[Image is in the Public Domain]

So this could be a window into finding out -- at least from a neurological standpoint -- how our brain modulates our aesthetic response.  The "why," of course, is more inscrutable -- demonstrating in an fMRI that I go into rapture hearing Stravinsky's Firebird isn't telling me anything I didn't already know, after all, and doesn't answer why I don't have the same response hearing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2.

But at least finding a neurological basis for such judgments would be a step forward.  The Vessel et al. research is a fascinating first step into understanding the sweetest of human behaviors -- our perception of beauty in the world around us.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation made the cut more because I'd like to see what others think of it than because it bowled me over: Jacques Vallée's Passport to Magonia.

Vallée is an interesting fellow, and certainly comes with credentials; he has an M.S. in astrophysics from the University of Lille and a Ph.D. in computer science from Northwestern University.  He's at various times been an astronomer, a computer scientist, and a venture capitalist, and apparently was quite successful at all three.  But if you know his name, it's probably because of his connection to something else -- UFOs.

Vallée became interested in UFOs early, when he was 16 and saw one in his home town of Pontoise, France.  After earning his degree in astrophysics, he veered off into the study of the paranormal, especially allegations of alien visitation, associating himself with some pretty reputable folks (J. Allen Hynek, for example) and some seriously questionable ones (like the fraudulent Israeli spoon-bender, Uri Geller).

Vallée didn't really get the proof he was looking for (of course, because if he had we'd probably all know about it), but his decades of research compiles literally hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of alleged sightings and abductions.  And that's what Passport to Magonia is about.  To Vallée's credit, he doesn't try to explain them -- he doesn't have a favorite hypothesis he's trying to convince you of -- he simply says that there are two things that are significant: (1) the number of claims from otherwise reliable and sane folks is too high for there not to be something to it; and (2) the similarity between the claims, going all the way back to medieval claims of abductions by spirits and "elementals," is great enough to be significant.

I'm not saying I necessarily agree with him, but his book is lucid and fascinating, and the case studies he cites make for pretty interesting reading.  I'd be curious to see what other Skeptophiles think of his work.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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