Beauty and the Brain


Part 1 of 2

A close family member of mine is in a rehab hospital, struggling to overcome a brain injury.  This has naturally led me to reflect again on the nature of our brains, the ineffable complexity of this organ that has the consistency of grape jelly, how our brains are related to who we are as humans, what makes a person a person, free will, and the efforts various scientists, philosophers, and ethicists have made to arrive at a conclusion to these questions.  There is a fascinating body of research related to brain function, some of it disquieting (just as it is disquieting to look into our own souls, it can be so to look into our own brains), much of it disappointingly reductionistic.  Too much of the literature surrounding the research draws unwarranted conclusions from the results of experiments, proclaiming triumphantly that “this shows that what we thought were complex and uniquely human functions really turn out to be just the result of these neurons firing in response to those hormones which evolved in response to such-and-such showing that there’s nothing really special about us after all and that free will is an illusion . . .”  Religious devotion, marital fidelity, sexual preferences, altruism — all of these and more have been explained away by unjustifiably materialistic, reductionistic, and usually evolutionary conclusions drawn from observations of brain function.  In the process, human freedom and dignity are maligned.

When I saw this article entitled “Toward a Brain-Based Theory of Beauty,” I thought for sure that I was in store for more of the same triumphant debunking of something — the ability to appreciate beauty — that is unique to humans.  I was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise.  In the study, participants looked at paintings or listened to musical excerpts while lying in a functional MRI scanner.  They were asked to judge each one as “beautiful,” “indifferent,” or “ugly,” and the parts of their brains that lit up with each response were mapped out.  The researchers found that the same part of the cerebral cortex was activated by the perception of both visual and auditory beauty.  In their discussion, the researchers then actually interacted with some philosophical thought on the subject of beauty, before arriving at the conclusion that “Beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies that correlates with activity in the mOFC [a certain part of the brain] by the intervention of the senses.”

Here, it seems to me, is brain research done aright, brain research which respects human dignity.  There are no wild speculations, no debunking, no assumption that “what we’ve observed is the whole story.”  Instead there is humility (“We emphasize that our theory is tentative”), respect for historical human experience and thought outside of science, and the acknowledgement that there is more to beauty than what can be seen with a functional MRI scanner.  This stands in stark contrast to a recent article from Discover magazine with the grandiose title “The End of Morality,” which we will take a look at tomorrow.

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