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Beauty and the brain

when applied to inanimate objects or animals of a different species, which we are presumably not assessing for reproductive purposes.

So Winkielman, with colleagues from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and the University of Denver, wondered if there wasn't a more basic mechanism at work.

It is well-known that prototypes are attractive, the researchers reasoned. It is also well-known that prototypes are easy for the brain to process (as measured by the speed with which people are able to categorize what it is they're looking at). So, could it be, they asked, that prototypes are beautiful because they're easy to process?

Working with random-dot and geometric patterns ?in an attempt to "use stimuli that were free of reproductive content," Winkielman says, and would "get at a general principle of cognition" ?Winkielman and his colleagues first "prepared" participants' brains to perceive a prototype and then asked them to categorize different degrees of variations around that same prototype and rate their appeal.

"As predicted," the researchers write, "participants categorized patterns more quickly and judged them as more attractive when the patterns were closer to their respective prototypes."

And: "Critically, the less time it took participants to classify a pattern, the more attractive they judged it."

Even more significant, Winkielman said, is that when processing ease was controlled ?when, that is, the categorization speed was factored out of the equation ?much of the relationship between closeness to prototype and attractiveness disappeared.

A third experiment ?again with abstract, random-dot images ?was performed with electrode measurements at cheek and brow muscles (to detect the formation of incipient smiles or frowns) and, without having to rely on reported ratings, confirmed a genuine positive response to those images that were closest to prototype.

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Source:University of California - San Diego


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