Wouldn't that dolphin look so much better in my fridge? The beauty is in the context

Nov 24 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

Think of a copper tea kettle (I'm cold, tea is warm...). When you think about it, where is it? It's in a kitchen, right? Possibly on a stove. It's definitely in a context where you would expect it to be. Now take that tea kettle, and put it in your mind somewhere like...a desert. Surrounded by sand and sky. Now you're not thinking of tea anymore. But doesn't the copper gleam a little better? It might be out of context, but the tea kettle looks really...pretty!
Ok, maybe you don't follow that example. I happen to think copper tea kettles look really pretty either in or our of context (though a cool painting of a copper tea kettle in a desert would be a really neat thing to have on my wall). But the idea is the same no matter what example you use. And it's one of the reasons I like this study. The other reason is equally awesome: how many neuroscience studies are based off the work of Rene Magritte?!

ResearchBlogging.org Kirk, U. "The Neural Basis of Oject-Context Relationships on Aesthetic Judgement" PLoS ONE, 2008.

Your brain has a lot to do. There's that whole "moving" issue, plus things like breathing, talking, and, if you're lucky and work very hard at it, thinking. And all this doesn't include processing all the stimuli coming in from the world around you every second of every day. So your brain likes to take shortcuts whenever it can, and one of these ways involves processing objects by their context.
There are many objects that you see every day that are where you expect to see them. For example, your alarm clock (unless you have one of those that runs away from you. I think I'd smash the thing the first day). Because you always see the alarm clock in the same context every day, your brain processes its presence faster than something that you would see in a variety of contexts (like your cell phone). The context of an object and the object itself can be processed interactively, which can lead to faster identification of objects. This is a really efficient thing for your brain to do, it can quickly identify objects that are in their correct places and dismiss them, giving your brain more time to identify objects like might be out of place, and thus more important (like that scary missing spot where your keys really should have been...).
What the researchers of this study wanted to look at was the effects of context on aesthetic judgement. Does an object being in or out of its normal context make you think of it as more or less beautiful? Apparently there's an entire field devoted to this, the field of neuroaesthetics, which studies how the mind processes beauty. This particular study was inspired by the work of Rene Magritte. Magritte, as you can see from the picture above, became famous for taking normal, everyday things and putting them in completely different contexts, as a way to emphasize their beauty, or sometimes the sheer otherness of everyday objects. The novelty of an object in a context has already been shown to increase the ratings of how beautiful it is. And this time, the author decided to look at the effects inside an MRI scanner.

Back to the study: In previous MRI studies, people have found that your perception of beauty is localized to the medial orbitofrontal cortex, and how much it lights up correlates with how pretty (that's the technical term) you think the object is. So the author of this study decided to look at the correlation between how pretty you think something is and its context, and whether that changes how much your brain lights up.
He basically took objects, and put them in normal or abnormal contexts, and asked subjects (all right handed, and as a lefty this gets me, because I NEVER qualify for the good studies) how aesthetically pleasing they thought the result was. Although the subjects rated normal and abnormal contexts as being equally pleasing, they gave more EXTREME results to objects that were portrayed out of context (being really pretty or really not). Normal images were rated as neutral. The authors interpret this to mean that objects placed in a normal setting reflect stuff you already know, so you're less likely to pass aesthetic judgement on them. Objects in abnormal contexts MAKE you think about them, and make you judge them aesthetically.
Some examples from the study.
He also found that objects out of context were processed differently than those same objects in context. The orbitofrontal cortex lighted up in correlation with how "pretty" they thought the object was, as expected. Normal conditions activated brain areas that were associated with semantic memory (the lateral occipital cortex and the parahippocampal gyrus), whereas abnormal conditions activated areas involved in monitoring discrepancies (frontal and parietal areas).
So what does this all mean? This means that your brain processes stimuli in different ways according to whether or not you recognize the context, AND whether or not you think it's pretty. Some parts of the brain will always light up in response to "familiar" or "unfamiliar", while other parts will light up for "attractive" or "not attractive". Not only that, the author found that your brain reacts more intensely to stimuli out of context, which means you notice unfamiliar things more, and pass aesthetic judgement on them. The judgements themselves varied widely, but aesthetic judgements were more extreme when an object was out of context.
Your takehome message: If you're an artist, take something out of context. Not everyone will like it, but everyone will notice.
One of the many things this study made me think about was a concept that the French have about beauty: Une belle laide. The direct translation of this is "Beautiful-ugly", and I think this may have originally been attributed to George Sand. What it basically means is someone who is beautiful in every feature but one, and that one feature, though it may be ugly in itself, sets that woman apart and makes her even more beautiful and, more importantly, interesting, to look at. My favorite example of this is Angelica Huston. She's a stunningly beautiful woman (and a killer actress), but lady has a NOSE. Luckily for her, her nose, which might on other women be considered ugly, on her adds even more interest to her face. It makes you want to look at her and lends her extra character. You may not agree that she is beautiful, but everyone would agree that she's very recognizable.

And there she is. Definitely a face that sticks in your mind.
How does this relate to the study? In the beautiful, yet symmetrically flawlessly boring planes of a model's face is the context. What makes the model beautiful is something that sticks out. Maybe she's got big lips. Maybe she's got quirky eyebrows or a cute gap in her teeth. It's something that, in any other context, might be merely bland, or even ugly. But taken out of context and places on a beautiful face, the perception of it is heightened and noticed. The face is more interesting, and often more beautiful, because of it. Blame it on your orbitofrontal cortex.
Ulrich Kirk (2008). The Neural Basis of Object-Context Relationships on Aesthetic Judgment PLoS ONE, 3 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003754

5 responses so far

  • Rr says:

    Feh. It's at times like these I want to hiss at people like a crazy 5-year-old and call them poopyheads for being so ignorant about the beauty and wonder of the world and everything in it. Just because something is common doesn't make it any less fascinating, just more common...

  • Scicurious says:

    Ah, but Rr, you can't BLAME them now! It's their brain's fault that they don't appreciate beauty in context. And for all you know, when you appreciate the beauty of an object in context, perhaps you are, in your head, pulling it out of context to make an aesthetic judgement! You never know.

  • Donna B. says:

    I'm inspired by the copper teakettle in the desert. But which desert? There are so many colors and formations to choose from. I'm thinking a parched cracked lake bed would be a good contrast to a gleaming copper kettle.
    If only I were an artist!

  • Scicurious says:

    See, I was thinking somewhere with orange/red sand. I want to see the copper juxtaposed against the color, especially with a VERY blue sky.

  • Donna B. says:

    The Namib desert. I'll start saving my pennies for the trip 🙂