Brain systems for assessing facial attractiveness

Neuropsychologia. 2007 Jan 7;45(1):195-206. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.05.009. Epub 2006 Jul 7.


Attractiveness is a facial attribute that shapes human affiliative behaviours. In a previous study we reported a linear response to facial attractiveness in orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a region involved in reward processing. There are strong theoretical grounds for the hypothesis that coding stimulus reward value also involves the amygdala. The aim of the present investigation is to address whether the amygdala is also sensitive to reward value in faces, indexed as facial attractiveness. We hypothesized that contrary to the linear effects reported previously in OFC, the amygdala would show a non-linear effect of attractiveness by responding to both high and low attractive faces relative to middle attractive faces. Such a non-linear response would explain previous failures to report an amygdala response to attractiveness. Human subjects underwent fMRI while they were presented with faces that varied in facial attractiveness where the task was either to rate faces for facial attractiveness or for age. Consistent with our hypothesis, right amygdala showed a predicted non-linear response profile with greater responses to highly attractive and unattractive faces compared to middle-ranked faces, independent of task. Distinct patterns of activity were seen across different regions of OFC, with some sectors showing linear effects of attractiveness, others exhibiting a non-linear response profile and still others demonstrating activation only during age judgments. Significant effects were also seen in medial prefrontal and paracingulate cortices, posterior OFC, insula, and superior temporal sulcus during explicit attractiveness judgments. The non-linear response profile of the amygdala is consistent with a role in sensing the value of social stimuli, a function that may also involve specific sectors of the OFC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Esthetics / psychology*
  • Face*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nonlinear Dynamics
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reward