Nature’s Rewards

How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where, wild in the woodlands, the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev’ning weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me

Sweet Afton Robert Burns

We don’t have to be great poets or artists to realise how wonderful Nature is and equally how important it is to our wellbeing.

Image credit Rosie Hopkins

A group of scientists have looked at how our brain converts what we see and how we then translate that into feelings of enjoyment and love.

The research team from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics presented artistic landscape videos to 24 participants. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they measured the participants’ brain activity as they viewed and rated the videos. Their findings have just been published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Researcher A. Ilkay Isik explains:

“We would have expected the aesthetic signals to be limited to the brain’s reward systems, but surprisingly, we found them already present in visual areas of the brain while the participants were watching the videos. The activations occurred right next to brain regions deployed in recognizing physical features in movies, such as the layout of a scene or the presence of motion.”

Fellow researcher, Edward Vessel suggests that these signals may reflect an early, elemental form of beauty perception:

“When we see something beyond our expectations, local patches of brain tissue generate small ‘atoms’ of positive affect. The combination of many such surprise signals across the visual system adds up to make for an aesthetically appealing experience.”

The authors comment that with this new knowledge, the study not only contributes to our understanding of beauty, but may also help clarify how interactions with the natural environment can affect our sense of well-being. The results might have potential applications in a variety of fields where the link between perception and emotion is important, such as clinical health care and artificial intelligence.

Image Credit Rosie Hopkins

Categories: Science

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