16 October 2013, 10.00 – 17.30

“Beauty and Value”. Open Meeting in Neuroesthetics

This meeting is fully booked - waiting list only! Organizers: Semir Zeki (UCL) and Ray Dolan (UCL)

With the collaboration of the Association for Neuroesthetics, Berlin, The Einstein Foundation Berlin, The Berlin School of Mind and Brain, The Japanese Society for Neuroaesthetics and The Italian Society for Neuroesthetics.

Organized in the context of a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award in Neuroaesthetics.

Confirmed Speakers: Ray Dolan, Beatrice de Gelder, Tomohiro Ishizu, Winfried Menninghaus, Ian Penton-Voak, Barry C Smith and Semir Zeki

The meeting is open to all and free of charge but registration is essential as there is a limited number of available seats.

Registration (waiting list only!)

Please register at: mb-einstein-please remove this text-@hu-berlin.de

Required details for registration:

  • Full name
  • Status (e.g., Master’s student, doctoral candidate, postdoc, senior researcher, professor)
  • University & Institute/Lab/Affiliation


Tuesday, October 15, 18.00

Distinguished Invited Lecture

Professor Dr. Winfried Menninghaus (Director, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt/Main)

“Towards an empirical aesthetics of language and literature

Models of language processing currently used in linguistics and language psychology do not entail provisions for aesthetic processing dimensions. The lecture sketches research lines that are aimed at (1) developing a comprehensive descriptive grid of "poetic" features of language, (2) testing the effects of such features on aesthetic appreciation and (3) investigating the cognitive and affective mechanisms involved in aesthetic language processing, including their neural signature.

Wednesday October 16, 10.00–17.30

10.00-10.05Introduction Semir Zeki

Chairpersons: Ernst Poeppel and Eva Ruhnau (Munich)

Tomohiro Ishizu (University College London)
“The neural correlates of the experience and judgment of beauty”

Neuroesthetics does not try to explain beauty. Rather, it seeks to enquire into a more limited question which can be summarised thus: what does the experience of beauty imply in neural terms? In this talk, I will show that there is a single neural characteristic which is important in the experience of beauty, namely activity in a well-defined area of the emotional brain, the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC). This area is active whenever subjects – regardless of age, ethnicity, and cultural background - report an experience of beauty. Moreover, the activity in this area is proportional in intensity to the declared experience of beauty, thus answering a critical question in the philosophy of aesthetics, namely whether aesthetic experiences can ever be quantified. The experience of something as beautiful implies having made a judgment about it, and I will show that there are brain systems that are apparently specific for aesthetic judgment and other systems that aesthetic judgments share with other cognitive judgments (such as brightness). Crucially, the system for aesthetic judgments involves, among other areas, the mOFC.

Beatrice de Gelder (Cognitive Neuroscience, Maastricht University)
Beauty of bodies and its evolutionary significance

Bodies express many feelings and represent many experiences, foremost among these are pleasure and pain.  Pleasure and pain entertain a complex relationship. Some theories see a direct link between the experience of pleasure and that of pain, going as far as viewing pleasure and pain as two sides of the same coin. There is clearly evidence that the experience of pleasure can compensate for that of pain, as shown, for example, by the success of music therapy.  Paradoxically, in the tradition of western painting, when pain is represented it is done with the intention of creating pleasure. Somehow, pain and pleasure may be viewed as either antagonistic or complementary. As is the case for emotional body perception in general, cultural factors likely play a role. In this contribution, we will first review recent studies on emotional body perception.   This research will then be related to neuroscience studies of aesthetic experience on the one hand, and to those of pain perception on the other.  We will discuss recent behavioral and brain imaging research on the perception of both beauty and pain in 18 and 19th century painting.  

Coffee (2nd floor) and Posters (ground floor)

Ian Penton-Voak (School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol)
Evolutionary approaches to beauty

The study of beauty – in the sense of physical attractiveness – has been a growing area of psychological research in the last 20 years, with a particular concentration on facial attractiveness. Evolutionary biological theories of sexual selection have revolutionized this work, providing a coherent underlying framework to interpret findings from psychological studies of attractiveness preferences. The basic theory is simple, yet compelling: our judgements of physical beauty are evolved psychological decision making mechanisms that increase our reproductive success by identifying healthy, fertile mates. There is evidence for considerable cross-cultural agreement in facial attractiveness judgements, and also studies that demonstrate preferences for attractive faces in neonates. These findings suggest that our ideas of physical beauty may be innate, but there is also conflicting evidence that cultures vary considerably in criteria of attractiveness and that migrants rapidly acquire local beauty ‘standards’. While some aspects of face perception are likely to be innate, facial preferences also reflect experience and learning. I will outline the psychological mechanisms that underlie the acquisition of our sense of beauty, and argue that they will likely generate near universal standards of physical attractiveness that serve an adaptive function.

Lunch (2nd floor) and Posters (ground floor)

Semir Zeki (Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology, University College London)
Enemies of the intellect in aesthetic experience: Clive Bell, Francis Bacon, Marcel Proust

In their different ways, the art critic, the painter and the writer, all sought to shift the emphasis from education, culture and learning in aesthetic experience to something much more primitive and physiological. In his book Art, Clive Bell developed his theory of “Significant Form”, a combination of lines and colours that is “common to all and peculiar to none” and that arouses the “aesthetic emotion” according to ”mysterious laws”. Francis Bacon claimed that his work was detached  from narrative and emphasized that he had “no story to tell” but was seeking to give “a visual shock” through the “rawness of the image”. In Contre Sainte-Beuve, Marcel Proust declared that , “Daily I attach less importance to intelligence” in matters of art and emphasized the importance of involuntary memories. I will discuss the contribution that all three make to neuroesthetics, illustrating my talk with examples from brain experiments that explore the neural correlates of aesthetic experience.

Ray Dolan (Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London)
The neurobiology of value judgments

Valuation is fundamental to all forms of choice behaviour and many of the judgments we make, including aesthetic judgments. In this talk I will first consider the nature of valuation touching on the question of relative versus absolute valuation. I will then focus on how value is represented in the brain, outlining a perspective that posits multiple value encoding systems that endow humans (and other animals) with greater or lesser behavioural flexibility. Lastly, I will address how stored values inform choice, including choices we make for others and choices that are simulated as opposed to actuated.

Tea (2nd floor) and Posters (ground floor)

Barry C Smith (School of Advanced Study, London)
The nature and neuroscience of aesthetic experience

Abstract: To count as an aesthetic experience, the response of an individual to a work of art or a landscape must go beyond mere liking. The hard part is saying what is involved in this special kind of response, what it depends on, and why it amounts to more than a mere subjective inclination. No doubt there must be enough in the object or performance to merit our response, and reward the interest we take in it, but more needs to be said about what it takes to adopt an aesthetic attitude in the first place. What processes lead to such heightened awareness? What kinds of pleasures arise from exercising this special kind of attentiveness? 
The new tools of neuroscience allow us to pursue these questions in greater detail: probing the perceptual, cognitive and affective backgrounds to our aesthetic responses; helping us to understand what shapes these experiences, and what properties of these experience reward us. But still some are skeptical about whether findings from neuroscience and neurobiology can provide real insights into aesthetics. I think they can and they have, and I will give one illustration by means of the way neurobiology has lent renewed support to the previously discredited taste aesthetic of Hume and Kant, showing why the exercise of taste is not as arbitrary or as simple as many have assumed. 

General discussion

Closing remarks Ray Dolan



Berlin School of Mind and Brain
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
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