It was -25 degrees and Professor Mark Lythgoe, Director, Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI), was dangling from a rope 5,000m above sea level on the north face of Mount Kenya. He had been climbing for days and his team was now bivouacked on a tiny ledge, trying to get a few hours sleep before attempting the summit. As the sun began to rise, it revealed the African savannah, flat as far as Lythgoe could see until the distant blur of mountaintops on the horizon. The light spread further, illuminating the green jungle canopy, the ink-black rocks and crystalline snow and ice on the mountain.
“Standing where others have not and seeing a view that nobody else has ever seen is one of the most special moments you can have,” he remembers. “I can still see it, the orange sunrise, lighting up these different parts of the earth in concentric rings around us. That beauty will live with me forever. And it is exactly the same buzz when I see an image of the body or brain that’s never been seen before.”
It has long been appreciated that objects of scientific interest have their own, special beauty. (Physicist Richard Feynman controversially claimed, more than 30 years ago, that a scientist can see much more in a flower than an artist.) CABI recently displayed its new imaging techniques in a stunning exhibition at the Royal Society, and the results were spectacular – the whorls of colours and textures in the fibres of an injured heart, the delicate, feathery, tree-like structure of the blood vessels in a tumour, cross over into the realms of abstract art.
And now science, through the relatively recent sub-division of empirical aesthetics known as neuroaesthetics, is seeking its own explanations for exactly where Lythgoe’s “buzz” came from. It asks what provokes it, how his brain makes that connection between what he sees when gazing at a 3D image from a liver tumour biopsy, and what he sees staring out from a mountainside, so far up that he can see the curvature of the Earth.
There’s a caveat, however. “Neuroaesthetics does not address the questions of ‘what is art?’ and ‘what is beauty?’,” says Semir Zek Professor of Neuroesthetics. “People often think it does, but it doesn’t. It does something a lot more important. It asks: what are the neural mechanisms that allow you to experience beauty?”
Zeki’s recent research, “The experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates”, published in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, examined the question of whether the experience of beauty from mathematics – with its abstract nature – correlated with activity in the same part of the emotional brain as that of beauty from other sources, such as visual or musical. Sixteen mathematicians were given 60 mathematical formulae and asked to rate each one on a scale of one to five according to beauty, while having their brains scanned.
“Visual beauty will engage the visual brain system,” explains Professor Zeki. “The visual brain consists of many specialised areas. So if you’re looking at a beautiful landscape, the area of the brain that is active will be different from the area of the brain that will be active if you are looking at a beautiful portrait, or an abstract painting.
“But when we experience anything as ‘beautiful’, there is also activity in a part of the emotional brain known as the medial orbital-front cortex. And that activity is related to the declared intensity of the experience. In other words, if you tell me that something is extremely beautiful, the intensity of the activity in that area is greater than if you tell me something is mildly beautiful. And we found activity in this same part of the brain when our mathematicians found certain equations beautiful.”