The Science Behind Beauty

By on February 18, 2014

“Beauty” is a very ambiguous term throughout multiple contexts. Each person’s preferences dictate their definition of and response to beauty.  The beauty of a work of art can hardly be compared to the beauty of a complex mathematical equation—or does the brain say otherwise? Plato considered beauty derived from mathematics to be of the highest quality because of its intellectual and logical roots. Scientists in London explore the scientific basis of beauty perception and human reaction though brain scanning in the latest publication of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) uses blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) contrast to map neurological activity in terms of blood flow changes. Previous studies identified that activity in the A1 region of the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC) indicates emotional responses paired with the experience of beauty.  This study sought parametrically related activity between these pre-existing results and neurological responses to “beautiful” mathematics. The connection is defined by statistical parametric mapping (STM), used to identify areas of brain activity specific to a particular function.

A group of 19 mathematicians from ages 22-32, in both doctorate or postdoctoral programs, in London participated in the experiment. The subjects were allowed to study and rank 60 mathematical equations on a scale from -5 to +5, with -5 being the “ugliest” and +5 being the “most beautiful.” Two weeks later, the participants re-ranked the equations on the simplified scale of “ugly”, “neutral”, or “beautiful” while undergoing the fMRI scan. A post-survey was administered a few days later, where subjects were asked to report their level of understanding and subjective feelings towards each equation.  Initially, 12 non-mathematicians were recruited for scanning, but the pre-rankings did not reveal any emotions of beauty towards the equations; this can be partially attributed to the lack of mathematical ability in this control group.

Data from the fMRI scans was processed through a series of image sequences and fourier transform anatomical scans to produce high resolution structural images. Statistical parametric mapping of these results compared to artistic forms of “beautiful” stimuli revealed significant differences in the brain’s use of blood in the mOFC when viewing the “beautiful” equations in comparison to the “ugly” and “neutral” stimuli. The correlation between reported understanding and the neurological activity was not as clearly defined.

Activity in the mOFC is also associated with feeling of pleasure, reward and happiness, weakening the relationship between beauty and activity alone. However, neuroscientists debate whether or not emotions stimulated by beauty can actually exists without the accompaniment of these other elements.

The main discovery from this study is the existence of an abstract quality of beauty that is independent of culture and learning. Even when the level of understanding of the equation is less than optimal, the brain can still register the mathematical beauty. This counters the position of many philosophers who believe the recognition of beauty is rooted in the presence of understanding. Perhaps our minds appreciate the mystery of the universe and the wonder of the unknown more than our mortal egos care to admit.

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