Neural Substrates of Embodied Natural Beauty and Social ...

What are the neural mechanisms underlying beauty based on objective parameters and beauty based on subjective social construction? This study scanned participants with fMRI while they performed aesthetic judgments on concrete pictographs and abstract oracle bone scripts. Behavioral results showed both pictographs and oracle bone scripts were judged to be more beautiful when they referred to beautiful objects and positive social meanings, respectively. Imaging results revealed regions associated with perceptual, cognitive, emotional and reward processing were commonly activated both in beautiful judgments of pictographs and oracle bone scripts. Moreover, stronger activations of orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and motor-related areas were found in beautiful judgments of pictographs, whereas beautiful judgments of oracle bone scripts were associated with putamen activity, implying stronger aesthetic experience and embodied approaching for beauty were elicited by the pictographs. In contrast, only visual processing areas were activated in the judgments of ugly pictographs and negative oracle bone scripts. Results provide evidence that the sense of beauty is triggered by two processes: one based on the objective parameters of stimuli (embodied natural beauty) and the other based on the subjective social construction (social endowed beauty).How people perceive beauty is the most important and debated issue in aesthetic psychology and neuroaesthetics. According to aesthetic theories, a sense of beauty may be mainly affected by two factors. The first is objective parameters and external morphology of concrete objects, consistent with the perspectives of Plato's of aesthetic perception. Previous studies have found symmetrical human faces, geometrical shapes and websites designs, symmetrical sequences of apparent movements, representational artworks, sculptures obeying the canonical proportion of the golden ratio, and paintings and polygon patterns with intermediate complexity, typically elicit higher aesthetic appraisal and experience, providing support of this theory that "beauty has corresponding morphological characteristics".An alternative theory argues that the perception of beauty is mainly based on the subjective construction of valence based on abstract social meaning and values. Prior studies have found smiling human faces with direct eye gaze, people with good inner character, and short sentences and scenes describing morally-positive actions can elicit a sense of beauty and produce enhanced activation of aesthetic reward systems due to the positive social meanings associated with these stimuli. These studies imply that aesthetic evaluation is a subjective construction and support the "what is good is beautiful" theory.Although there has been progress in the neuroimaging of aesthetic appraisal, very little is known regarding the mental and neural mechanisms underlying these seemingly contradictory theories. Previous studies have found that ancient Chinese characters can arouse a sense of beauty due to their obvious two-dimensional graphical features, supporting the use of ancient Chinese characters as materials for studies of aesthetic appraisal and judgments. More importantly, ancient Chinese characters were produced using two separate systems, one in which characters referring to concrete objects were generated by outlining the shape of the object (pictographs), and another in which characters referring to abstract social meaning were developed to convey corresponding social concepts (ideographic symbol of oracle bone scripts). Aesthetic qualities of pictographs and oracle bone script therefore may be based on the beauty of objective morphologies and the beauty of subjective social construction, respectively.Following the logic of the studies examining aesthetic perception and appraisal of pictographs, we asked the question of whether oracle bone scripts would elicit aesthetic appraisal dependent on their abstract social meanings. That is, would oracle bone scripts that refer to positive social meanings be more likely to be judged as beautiful, and those that refer to negative social meanings be more likely to be judged as ugly? The answer to this question may contribute to identifying the mental and neural mechanisms underlying the beauty of objective morphologies and the beauty of subjective social construction.The present functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study investigated the neural basis of aesthetic appraisal of objective morphologies and subjective social constructions when participants observed and made aesthetic judgments about ancient Chinese characters referring to concrete objects (aesthetic judgment of pictograph, AP) and abstract social meanings (aesthetic judgment of oracle bone script, AO). The effect of semantic processing during the aesthetic judgments was prevented by using pictographs and oracle bone scripts that were unfamiliar to participants. In addition, high or low luminance grey squares were used in a baseline task (square luminance judgment, SL) to control for activity in motor brain regions associated with the key responses. The neural substrates of pictograph aesthetic judgments were identified by the contrast of "AP > SL", and the neural substrates of oracle bone script aesthetic judgments were identified by the contrast of "AO > SL". According to our hypothesis, if pictographs and oracle bone scripts elicit variable aesthetic appraisals related to the aesthetic qualities of the referential objects and the positive degrees of the referential social meanings, respectively, then similar neural areas should be engaged in both tasks, including regions of the fusiform gyrus, occipital gyri, inferior and middle frontal gyri, anterior cingulate cortex, OFC, caudate nucleus and putamen which are associated with perceptual, cognitive, emotional and reward processing.Because pictographs reflect the shapes of their referential objects, they have a higher degree of visualization than oracle bone scripts referring to abstract meanings. We hypothesized that this high visualization for pictographs would activate perceptual representations, and produce relevant image schemas and visual mental images which could serve to elicit strong recurring bodily experiences. These bodily experiences might result in an embodied contribution towards beauty, which can be regarded as bodily resonance for the intention of making action toward beauty, and which should be revealed by stronger activations in motor-related regions.

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