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EASTBIO Choosing beauty: the neural mechanisms of aesthetic decision-making.

   School of Psychology

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  Dr Rama Chakravarthi, Dr A Hunt  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Dr Ramakrishna Chakravarthi (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Amelia Hunt (University of Aberdeen)

The proposed project uses approaches from Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, with insights from Economics and decision theory, to examine the neural mechanisms underlying the role of aesthetic experience in decision-making. Homo sapiens is one of the few species to whom aesthetic experiences appear to be central. Evidence for this proclivity, such as decorative beads and paints, have been found in sites as old as 100,000 years. Aesthetic appreciation pervasively shapes our inner world, with individuals seeking out these experiences in everyday objects, nature, and artistic masterpieces. However, although we know that aesthetics or experiences of beauty influence the choices we make [1], the mechanisms through which such aesthetic experiences arise and the way they influence our decisions are not known.
Rational choice theory (RCT), despite the multiple and justified criticisms levelled at it [2], is a remarkably successful account of human behaviour in a range of situations [3]. RCT argues that we compute the value (weighted sum of costs and benefits) of the options we have and choose the one with the best outcome (highest value). Accordingly, there are two opposing possibilities for beauty as a motivator of choice:
1) Beauty/aesthetics is one among many contributors to the computation of an object’s value
2) Alternatively, beauty, like morality, drives ‘irrational’ choice and people choose objects of beauty even if they do not maximise benefits or value.
We will test these alternatives in a series of electroencephalogram (EEG) experiments designed to uncover the underlying mechanisms. Specifically, we will use behavioural, eye movement and neural measures (ERPs, machine learning: multivariate classification, Representational Similarity Analysis, etc.) to
a) determine if beauty, and choices based on beauty, exhibit traits predicted by RCT, such as transitivity (if A is preferred to B and B is preferred to C, then A is preferred over C). Preliminary data from our lab has shown that, surprisingly, transitivity is exhibited for arbitrary choices made on fractal images, which is reflected in neural signatures (e.g., an EEG component known as N2pc);
b) pit various dimensions of value against each other (e.g., beauty and utility) and observe if they violate RCT predictions; and compare such behaviour to situations where RCT is known to hold (e.g., financial assets) or not hold (e.g., morality);
c) computationally model the contribution of beauty to decision-making using the collected data.
These results will be analysed in the light of cognitive models of aesthetics (e.g., Vienna Aesthetic model). The investigation of neural activity in the choices we make addresses an essential question of human nature and promises to shed light on how aesthetics motivate action.
The project will provide the PhD candidate with unique opportunities to learn from a broad range of topics and techniques. The student will receive training not only in rigorous experimentation and tools (EEG, eye movements, computational modelling and data analysis), but also in relevant literature in aesthetics and decision theory. The student will therefore receive extensive training in the multiple approaches, promoting a diverse skill set.

Application Procedure:


Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts to Alison McLeod at [Email Address Removed]. Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to [Email Address Removed].

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership http://www.eastscotbiodtp.ac.uk/how-apply-0. This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend and UK level tuition (limited funding is available to provide international tuition fees). Please refer to UKRI website and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions for full eligibility criteria.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2:1 UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.


[1] van der Laan, LN et al. (2012), PLoS One;
[2] Burns, T and Roszkowska, E (2016), Theoretical economics letters, 6: 195-207;
[3] Blume, LE and Easley, D (2007), Rationality
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