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Your Brain on Beauty

“When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
~ Buckminster Fuller

Last week, I attended the Opening Night of Ice Theatre of New York’s 2010 Home Season with the guest performance by three-time National Champion and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir.  The ice show was an inspiring and spectacular blend of skating, dance, music, and art.  It was a perfect example of brain captivation where passion, vision, resilience, and continuous practice are transformed into an exhibit of mastery and beauty.

Since I’ve started writing my book and exploring the topics of attention, brain captivation, and influence, I am happy to say that my daily experiences fuel my book project, posing more questions and giving me the pleasure of an occasional insight.  That night was no different as I was pondering how beauty influenced the brain, feeling its impact first-hand.

Beauty is not the term we often use when we talk about influence and leadership, but watching the ice show made me think about beauty as an attribute of masterful performance.  Beauty evokes emotions and inspires.   Effective influencers know how to inspire people and understand human emotions.  We can all appreciate beauty and wouldn’t mind having more of it in our lives.

Is our brain sensitive to beauty?  Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?

Neuroscience studies suggest that our brain is hard-wired for certain elements of beauty, such as symmetry, for example.  The brain reacts to symmetry in the occipital lobe, the primary area that responds to visual stimuli. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that people instinctively scan a visual object for symmetrical qualities in less than .05 of a second.

In one study, researchers showed subjects with no knowledge of art criticism various images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures as they used fMRI to study the subjects’ patterns of brain activation. Some of the images had canonical proportions while the proportions of others were altered to degrade their aesthetic value.  Looking at the images of normal proportions activated specific sets of cortical neurons as well as the insula, a structure mediating emotions.  Distorted proportions failed to activate these areas of the brain.  These results suggest that the brain may be hard-wired to perceive balanced proportions universally.

Next, the subjects were asked to evaluate whether the sculptures were aesthetic.  This time, the images judged to be beautiful activated the right amygdala, a structure associated with learned emotional experiences.  Thus, our aesthetical taste has a lot to do with our personal experiences of art.

The study suggests that both biology and personal emotional experience contribute to our perception of art and beauty.

And then, there is beauty bias when it comes to faces.  A study from the University of Pennsylvania indicates that our brains judge attractiveness of faces within a fraction of a second based on very limited information. Study participants were asked to rate faces of non-famous men and women that they viewed for just .013 of a second on a computer screen.  Although the subjects reported that they could not see the faces and that they were guessing on each trial, they were able to accurately rate the attractiveness of those faces.

The same study indicates that pretty faces “prime” or make it more likely for people to experience positive emotions.  According to Ingrid Olson, a professor in Penn’s Department of Psychology and researcher at Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neurosciece attractive people “receive more attention in most facets of life” along with other social and economic benefits.  Clearly, brains can be captivated and fooled by good looks.

But when it comes to a performance by a dancer or figure skater, what enables the artist to communicate emotions to the audience without speaking?  The answer probably lies in the activity of mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons fire not only when we perform a particular action but also when we watch someone else perform that same action.  When our brain “mirrors” others, we can empathize with them and understand what they feel.

Recent studies demonstrate that mirror neurons are located in more areas of the human brain than previously thought.  The researchers recorded them in motor regions of the brain and also in areas involved in vision and memory.  Mirror neurons explain how we can get better at sports, for example, by watching others who are good at it.  Our mirror neurons in motor regions are at work even when we sit still and observe.

In conclusion, here are a few take-aways for aspiring influencers to consider:

1.  Perhaps, I am stating the obvious here but we still fall for the beauty bias and advertisers know it well.   Beware that attractive faces can warp your rational brain and affect your judgment by priming you for positive emotions.  If you need to watch your budget, be vigilant and don’t make impulsive purchases when you talk to an attractive sales person.

2.  Brains may have an easier time grasping information presented in the visual form that has symmetry and balanced proportions.  It is no surprise that visuals help cognitive processing because we can see and remember a picture much better than individual words and sentences used to describe the same picture.   Our working memory can hold only about seven pieces of information at a time.  Visuals enable us to chunk information and overcome the limits of our conscious processing center.  A visual with balanced proportions may help even more.

3.  Possibly, the most important beauty tool in the influencer’s toolkit is the emotional touch.  Influencers need to know how emotions work their ways through presentations, speeches, and important conversations.  We pay a lot of attention to developing solid and engaging content, but not enough to the emotional details of its delivery.

The capacity of our conscious mind is quite small compared to the vast subconscious brain maps.  Emotions guide our decisions and behavior much more than our rational brain is willing to admit.  We need to awaken our inner artist to be able to better connect with the audience on this powerful emotional level.  The mirror neurons in your audience’s brains are ready to watch you and the emotions you project.  Your confidence, charisma, passion are all picked up by the observant brain.  And the same brain tunes in to your insecurities, indifference, or anxiety.  You create your audience’s mood.  If you have not thought of yourself as an artist, perhaps, it is time to embrace your new role and, paraphrasing Buckminster Fuller’s quote above, start creating beautiful and inspiring solutions because beauty captivates the brain.

By | 2010-05-06T21:12:48+00:00 May 6th, 2010|Brain, Communication|0 Comments

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