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From Neuroaesthetics to Neuro-osmology in search of beauty

From Neuroaesthetics to Neuro-osmology in search of beauty

05 March 2020

The relationship between odor perception and brain is a fascinating new field of study that will be explored by CIAS, Interdepartmental Research Centre of the University of Ferrara.

There is a peculiar difference in the choice of the adjective used to define a perfume we like. A fragrance creator or a great connoisseur will almost certainly define it as “nice”, to all the others it will be described as “good”.
Because “good” gives the idea of feeling with pleasure, of positive sensory perception, while “nice” is also an aesthetic evaluation, which is still emotional, but based on comparison and analysis.
The Greeks called Aesthetics – from the Greek word αἴσθησις meaning “perception” – the aspect of knowledge related to the use of the senses. And today, aesthetics is traditionally a sector of philosophy dealing with the knowledge of natural or artistic beauty.
If, according to Plato, art and science must be evaluated on the same level, since they are efforts to represent, in the first case, the idea of beauty and the idea of truth in the second one, modernity and the twentieth century in particular were the ages that sought to synthesize the different branches of knowledge, proposing to examine mind and perception also through the scientific method.
For example, what happens in our brain when we admire a masterpiece of classical art? Are the parts that are being activated the same ones whether we observe figurative art, where there is a faithful and accurate representation of the real world, or when we observe abstract art which instead lies outside the objective representation of reality?
In 1994, the neurobiologist Semir Zeki, professor at University College London, started a new research area, called Neuroaesthetics, which aims at studying the biological mechanisms underlying aesthetic perception by trying to understand what is put in motion inside our brain during all that series of resonances we are used to call “beauty” (or “ugliness”).
“Neurobiology – Zeki explains – allows us to analyze the brain mechanisms responsible for what we feel by observing a splendid picture, listening to an absorbing music or actually in more refined situations, as it happens to mathematicians in front of the aesthetic pleasure of formulas and theorems”.
And why not extend such field of research also to smells and fragrances to interpret and understand which parts of the brain are being activated when, for example, we smell the scent of benzoin and incense rather than that of vanilla or lemongrass? With the impalpable vibrations they can produce in humans, smells influence our relationships, discourage us or, on the contrary, drive us to one direction instead of another.
For some time now, odor perceptions are being studied because if the emotional responses are positive, they can stimulate the immune system, develop memory, improve our relational state, fight stress, increase or reduce appetite, and even have a favorable effect on some pathologies.
In the nineteenth century, the Frenchman Septimus Piesse transferred the concept of musical scale to the field of perfume, classifying each smell based on the notes of a scale. And in 1909, in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky wrote: “Color is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the souls vibrating by means of this or that key”.
But following this logical process, is it not perhaps natural to also compare the color palette on which the painter dips the brush to create his works of art, to the “olfactory library” on which the perfumer relies to masterfully create her fragrances?
Moellhausen, responsive and proactive in facing all the challenges affecting the sense of smell, the creation of fragrances and the vast world concerning them, can only encourage research in this area, where scientific theories and artistic creations measure themselves to better understand the future of human beings, starting from the analysis of their perceptions.
This fascinating and multidisciplinary domain combining Neuroaesthetics and Osmology (the study of the olfactory function, in medical language), is a frontier that, in Italy, is about to be explored by the CIAS, Interdepartmental Center of the University of Ferrara, directed by Professor Sante Mazzacane. It is a team bringing together researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds (currently engineers, microbiologists, architects, physicists), belonging to the Departments of Architecture and Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Ferrara, with the external contribution of computer scientists, sensor experts, physicians, neurologists, statisticians, economists, philosophers, art historians and literature scholars.
On the scientific basis and the success of recent research in the neuroaesthetic field, to which we hereupon refer, this Research Team will start to explore the potential of “neuro-osmology”, a new field of research that aims at studying the biological mechanisms underlying the olfactory perception.
As preview for Moellhausen, we hereafter integrally report the scientific premises on which the ambitious CIAS research project by Professor Sante Mazzacane rests, and that we will continue to follow and support with keen interest and curiosity.

Sense of beauty: From Neruroaesthetics to Neuro-osmology


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