Delectable Desserts & Beautiful Blooms: The Neural Underpinnings of Pleasant Visual Experience

Abstract

Viewing salient objects or entities in the environment can produce affective changes that are pleasant or unpleasant, which guide future action (Lang & Bradley, 2010). Because vigilance in detecting the unpleasant, unknown, or dangerous remains the focus of neuroscience research, relatively little is known about pleasant, attention-grabbing visuals. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we examined the neural activity associated with viewing two different kinds of hedonically potent objects: sweet foods and colorful flowers. High-resolution images of sweets and flowers were presented rapidly in blocks, amidst blocks of within-category hedonic control images (neutral/slightly pleasant vegetables/fruits and green plants) and low-level visual control images (unrecognizable, scrambled versions of the images). Twenty participants (10 female) performed a simple one-back task while viewing the images, during which they pressed a button if an image repeated. We predicted that subcortical regions that have been causally linked to pleasure-related taste behaviors in animal models would be more active for both the flowers and sweets conditions relative to the high- and low-level control conditions. In support of our prediction, ventral pallidum was significantly more active for the sweets and for the flowers relative to the corresponding control conditions. The results suggest that in addition to food objects, which are tightly tied to metabolic wants and needs, flowers also activate a “pleasure center” in the brain, raising new questions about sensory features that may frequently produce pleasant shifts in a person’s subjective feeling state.