April 22, 2019 Leave your thoughts

cool paper in 3 min (4)

Kampe, Frith, Dolan, Frith. Reward value of attractiveness and gaze. Nature (2001)

Ever wondered what happens in your brain when you see someone and find them attractive or ugly?

In 2001, Kampe, Frith, Dolan and Frith asked this question and using fMRI, showed that the perceived attractiveness of an unfamiliar face increases brain activity in the ventral striatum (see Fig 1) of the viewer when meeting the person’s eye, and decreases activity when eye gaze is directed away.

Fig 1. When eye gaze is directed at a subject, the degree of attractiveness of individual faces correlates positively with brain activity in the ventral striatum; when eye gaze is directed away, this correlation is reversed and activity in the ventral striatum decreases with increasing attractiveness

The paper is cool for a number of reasons:

  1. It asks a question that many of us would privately wonder about but be too shy to take it seriously or might dismiss it as Hollywood science and not worthy of our intellectual attention.
  2. The paper’s method is deceptively simple: brain activity is measured when people watch photographs of unfamiliar faces composed according to a 2 (gaze direction) x 2 (head orientation) design (see Figure 2) manipulating eye contact with the participant while varying the position of the head and eyes.
  3. The paper’s text is a masterclass is persuasive, brief, and clear writing. The second paragraph here is almost exactly quoted from the paper’s introduction and is, basically, the question, the result and the discussion. As an example, note how the paper chooses to refer to Ventral Striatum as “the brain area associated with reward prediction”. VS does many things including responding to reward prediction. But this wise choice of wording allows the authors to interpret attractiveness as reward CUE rather than reward itself. This choice has given a simple, straightforward and reasonable narrative to the paper: Eye contact with good looking people is good news. When confronted with an ugly face, on the other hand, no news (i.e. averted gaze) is good news.  
Fig 2. Two by two Design combining Head Orientation and Gaze Direction to produce Eye Contact (top row) and No Contact stimuli

It is the kind of paper that makes you think “I wish I had done that”.

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