Using fMRI, scientists report distinct brain regions which are active when subjects experience stimuli of the sublime in contrast to those of beauty
According to philosophers like Burke and Kant, a feeling of the sublime – awe, fear, and terror – is often elicited in the presence of Nature, such as the uncontrollable power of tornadoes to the grandeur of mountains. Beauty, on the other hand, is thought to be a counterpoint to the sublime and is described as producing feelings of pleasure, reward, and satisfaction.
A group of scientists tested whether there was a neurobiological difference between these aesthetic experiences. Building upon a previous study on the brain patterns of beauty, they asked 21 subjects to participate in an fMRI experiment where they viewed images of natural scenes that would evoke feelings of the sublime. Subjects rated the images while in the scanner from 1 to 5, 1 being the least sublime and 5 being the most. Post-scanning, they rated the same images on beauty, pleasantness, and scale.
Activated brain regions included the inferior temporal cortex (ITC), a visual sensory area, and the cerebellum, a region well-known to regulate motor function. The activation of the ITC suggests that not all emotional experiences are limited to ‘higher’ cortical regions, and activation of the cerebellum emphasizes its importance in emotional and cognitive processes, in addition its typical motor function. Other regions that were active include the caudate, putamen, and posterior hippocampus, associated with experiences of pleasure, hate, and memory, respectively.
The medial orbitofrontal cortex, a region very active with the declared experience of beauty in the research group’s previous study and known to be involved with pleasure, reward, and hedonic states, was notably inactive here. Furthermore, no other beauty-associated regions previously reported were observed as active when experiencing the sublime. From these results, the researchers were able to conclude that the pattern of brain activity upon viewing declared images of the sublime versus beautiful are distinctly different and involve separate brain systems.
Ishizu, T. and Zeki, S. A neurobiological enquiry into the origins of our experience of the sublime and beautiful. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8:891. doi:10.3389/ fnhum.2014.00891.
Zeki,S.,Romaya,J.P.,Benincasa,D.M.,andAtiyah,M.F.(2014).The experience of mathematical beautyand its neural correlates. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8:68. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00068
Written by Fiona Wong, PhD