On beauty

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or is there something else going on?

UCL Portico
November 2014

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.”

So we know what happens in our brain when we see something beautiful – whatever it might be – but what can explain why we find that thing beautiful in the first place? Psychology has two very different takes on physical attraction, says Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology and co-author with Dr Viren Swami of The Body Beautiful: Evolutionary and Socio-Cultural Perspectives. The socialisation hypothesis claims that beauty is a learned issue; what we find attractive is passed on through cultures. But the evolutionary theory, currently to the fore, says perception of beauty is all about breeding: widely accepted characteristics of beauty such as clear skin and bright eyes show health and youth, and, therefore, fertility.

“You can design a beautiful woman,” he says. “Of course, there are differences and personal preferences, but generally, if you show people 200 photos and ask them which are the most attractive people and which are the least attractive, there will be more agreements than differences. So men will tend to look for a younger woman who is more likely to be fertile, with a BMI of about 21-22, a waist-hip ratio of .7 and a torso-to-leg ratio of 1.3. Whereas women will tend to look for a man’s ability to command money, which will protect the possible children, and a good sense of humour which, really, is a code for intelligence.”

It’s certainly a way of looking at human beauty that our ancestors would have understood. Whereas our perceptions of beauty as it relates to art have changed radically throughout the centuries – it’s hard to see the 15th-century Florentine city fathers who commissioned Michelangelo’s David being able to appreciate Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue (1937-42) – the laws of attraction, it seems, have not.

“Art in the ancient world was not art as we understand it,” points out Egyptologist and Postgraduate Research Student John J. Johnston. It had very specific magical and religious properties and purposes. When you look at the sculpture of a beautiful woman from the ancient world, she may be fulfilling an entirely different role in our eyes from the role she served for the ancients.” But, he adds, we can hazard a guess that human nature remains unchanged across the millennia.

There are both fertility and intrinsically sexual aspects to ancient Egyptian depictions of the human form – men, however old they may have been at death, are almost invariably shown in tomb paintings as muscled, young and fit, while women are invariably shown to wear heavy, elaborate wigs, understood to be replete with sexual connotations, and almost transparent, ornately pleated linen dresses.

Art in the ancient world had very specific magical and religious properties and purposes.

But should something as objective and hard to define as beauty be the subject of scientific investigation at all? Is beauty a problem to be solved? It’s a profound mistake, says Sebastian Gardner, Professor of Philosophy, to regard beauty as something possessing an essence that awaits scientific determination.

“The experience of beauty has this strange property, in that it seems to bring the object and the subject together in a distinctive way that is not found in an ordinary perception of the world,” he says. “And this is a mystery, by ordinary lights. Common sense has no explanation for it. What the great thinkers such as Kant, Schiller and Hegel have in common is that they see clearly that it’s integral to the aesthetic experience that it should stand out from the ordinary portion of experience. There is something intrinsically puzzling to beauty.

“It’s paradoxical. In one sense, we of course know what beauty is. We grasp it. We couldn’t not do so. In another sense, beauty is opaque to us. Philosophical theories can elucidate beauty adequately, in the sense of explaining why there should be experiences with that distinctive, enigmatic character. But I think neurobiological investigation and evolutionary theory tell us absolutely nothing about the nature of beauty, or aesthetic qualities in general.”

But if beauty is a mystery, so too is the brain. And for the scientists exploring that most impenetrable of organs, the quest for more knowledge has a wonder of its own, which still, it seems, allows for indefinites. “Asking ‘what are the brain areas that correlate with experience of visual beauty?’ is not very different from asking about the brain areas which correlate with your experience of colour,” says Zeki. “The answers both tell you more about the brain.

And this knowledge doesn’t take anything away from you. It does not de-mystify beauty any more than it de-mystifies the brain. Rather, it reveals something about that most mysterious of organs. You can know all you want to know about the medial orbital-front cortex and it will not take away your experience of beauty. You will still be deeply moved.”

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