WASHINGTON – Beauty is in the brain of the beholder. Go to any museum and there will be men and women admiring paintings and sculpture. But it turns out they are thinking about the sight differently.
Men process beauty on the right side of their brains, while women use their whole brain to do the job, researchers report in Tuesday's electronic edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
They even explain it differently.
Novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Essayist David Hume: "Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them."
Researchers were surprised by the finding.
"It is well known that there are differences between brain activity in women and men in cognitive tasks," said researcher Camilo J. Cela-Conde of the University of Baleares in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. "However, why should this kind of difference appear in the case of appreciation of beauty?"
The answer seems to be that when women consider a visual object they link it to language while men concentrate on the spatial aspects of the object, Cela-Conde said in an interview by e-mail.
He noted, however, that this doesn't explain why — and how — the human capacity to appreciate beauty evolved.
"The differences that we have found might relate to the different social roles that, hypothetically, men and women had during human evolution." he said.
The researchers tested 10 men and 10 women, showing them paintings and photos of urban scenes and landscapes, asking them to rate each scene as either "beautiful" or "not beautiful."
At the same time the scientists looked at images of the magnetic fields produced by electrical currents in the brains of the men and women.
For the first 300 milliseconds, there was no difference between male and female brains, and from 300 to 700 milliseconds activity was greater for objects that were rated as beautiful than for those that were not beautiful.
For both sexes the most active region was the parietal lobe that deals with visual perception, spatial orientation and information processing, but it was focused on the right side of the brain in men while both sides participated in women.
While there are differences between people as to what is beautiful and what isn't, Cela-Conde said they did not find identifiable differences related to sex.
"Any person can find beautiful a landscape, a building or a canvas that some others will find awful. But sex has little to do with those differences. Perhaps they relate with other variables, such as age or education." he said.
"It is curious that, using different neural networks, the final result is very similar in women and men. But this seems to be the case," Cela-Conde said.
He added: "Human nature is complex and difficult to study and understand. Nevertheless, thanks to scientific tools we are starting to know a bit more about some very important aspects of our nature."