Pursued by poets and artists alike, beauty is ever elusive. We seek it in nature, art and philosophy but also in our phones and furniture. We value it beyond reason, look to surround ourselves with it and will even lose ourselves in pursuit of it. Our world is defined by it, and yet we struggle to ever define it. As philosopher George Santayana observed in his 1896 book The Sense of Beauty, there is within us “a very radical and wide-spread tendency to observe beauty, and to value it.”
Philosophers such as Santayana have tried for centuries to understand beauty, but perhaps scientists are now ready to try their hand as well. And while science cannot yet tell us what beauty is, perhaps it can tell us where it is—or where it isn’t. In a recent study, a team of researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing and their colleagues examined the origin of beauty and argued that it is as enigmatic in our brain as it is in the real world.
There is no shortage of theories about what makes an object aesthetically pleasing. Ideas about proportion, harmony, symmetry, order, complexity and balance have all been studied by psychologists in great depth. The theories go as far back as 1876—in the early days of experimental psychology—when German psychologist Gustav Fechner provided evidence that people prefer rectangles with sides in proportion to the golden ratio (if you’re curious, that ratio is about 1.6:1).
At the time, Fechner was immersed in the project of “outer psychophysics”—the search for mathematical relationships between stimuli and their resultant percepts. What both fascinated and eluded him, however, was the much more difficult pursuit of “inner psychophysics”—relating the states of the nervous system to the subjective experiences that accompany them. Despite his experiments with the golden ratio, Fechner continued to believe that beauty was, to a large degree, in the brain of the beholder.
So what part of our brain responds to beauty? The answer depends on whether we see beauty as a single category at all. Brain scientists who favor the idea of such a “beauty center” have hypothesized that it may live in the orbitofrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the insula. If this theory prevails, then beauty really could be traced back to a single region of the brain. We would experience beauty in the same way whether we were listening to Franz Schubert song, staring at a Diego Velázquez painting or seeing a doe denning under the starlight. [Continue reading…]