An AdNAUSEUM metaScience primer

Can Science Explain Beauty?

An essay by Des Pensable, (c) 2012


Aesthetics is the area of philosophy which attempts to understand the nature of beauty and how it affects us.   If we examine the literature it is easy to form the opinion that the aesthetic experience of beauty is both complex and personal. Some consider that beauty is a form of perfection stating truth is beauty and beauty is truth.  This suggests that something beautiful must be beautiful to all.

Others hold a more flexible view that each of us has our own opinion of what we think is beautiful often expressed as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So can science explain this fascinating nature of beauty, a problem that has occupied the philosophers, writers and poets for centuries?

Since the aesthetic experience of beauty is very personal , we can examine it in terms of our own understanding of beauty and our own individual response to it. As a strong believer in science realism (see my essay), my views on beauty naturally have a bent towards trying to explain my reactions to aesthetic experiences in an empirical way rather than viewing it as inspired or granted to me by some supernatural entity.

Is there a distinctive aesthetic experience?

Can we immediately recognize a beautiful object, person, scene, work of art, piece of music, voice, skill, mathematical algorithm, piece of computer code? In my case the answer is a definite yes. In fact, the main reason that I decided to examine this topic was to try to understand my own reaction to these widely different stimuli which gave me much pleasure.

I have spent a lot of my life working with numerical data, sometimes hours and often days on end trying to determine whether the data held secrets just waiting to be discovered. There were occasions when I had that eureka moment. I had discovered something new and important that no one else knew. The feeling was quite ecstatic. Was this the beauty of statistics or perhaps the beauty of discovery?

There were times when I dabbled in computer code and suddenly worked out a way to use one or two lines of code to replace a whole page. The elegance of the code was a joy to perceive. On showing the code to other programmers they would say ‘Wow that is beautiful ! ‘. To others it was incomprehensible and uninteresting. This suggests that beauty is contextual.

When it comes to theatre I love and get a real buzz out of live plays, musicals and ballet but not opera. I read and watch science fiction and a variety of forms of fantasy with great relish but find biographies and historical works quite boring. I like all sorts of music but specific types have much more emotional impact than others. Thus I might enjoy classical at times when relaxing at home or at the Sydney Opera House but prefer pop or jazz when at a club; and country or rock when travelling in my car.

With art, I particularly like magical realism and fantasy types of art whether it is on canvas, paper or a screen. Still life such as fruit doesn’t do much for me but a particularly impressive painting of a dryad or semi-nude warrior woman riding a dragon would be of particular interest.

While these views are those of my own, my experience with friends and relatives is that they each have a particular love for different forms of art but not necessarily the same things that I find beautiful. Thus my partner loves classical and jazz music anytime and dislikes listening to pop, country or rock whilst travelling in my car. She likes different styles of art to me but is just as entranced by a magnificent mountain panorama or a sunrise over the sea as I am.

What is particularly noticeable is that people tend to mix socially congregating in clubs, associations and societies with others that like a particular form of art, skill, sport or hobby finding pleasure in discussing the beauty of that type of activity with those that appreciate it.

The concept that a rose is beautiful to all proposed by some early philosophers suggests that a beautiful object had some type of absolute or universal property. It can also suggest that if you don’t think that a rose is beautiful then you are somehow uncultured or even mentally deficient. Perhaps this is the origin of cultural snobbery which seems to exist across all forms of art. From the wide variation in responses to what people believe to be beautiful, I’m convinced that that concept is not accurate.

Each of us find different things beautiful. There may be some things that a majority of people find beautiful but that doesn’t demean those that don’t find those things beautiful, it just means they have different tastes. Consequently, the concept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder seems to be a more accurate assessment of people’s appreciation of the beauty in any of its forms.

What then is the nature or character of this aesthetic experience?

Being an empiricist, my first instinct is to try classify and to categorize the properties of beauty then to subject these properties to some type of analysis. Next would be to try to discover the origin and mechanism of the pleasure I get from the aesthetic experience. Then finally to speculate on why we as humans might have these aesthetic experiences and perhaps why it varies so much between individuals.

We should applaud the effort of the early philosophers of the Enlightenment trying to understand complexities of a concept of beauty with no knowledge of the functions of the human brain. It would have been a challenging task in an environment where anything considered good and pleasingly aesthetic was most likely credited to a divine creator.

They would have been aware of St Bonaventure’s Retracing the Arts to Theology which discusses the skills of the artisan as gifts given by God to mankind (1). A supernatural explanation of beauty was normal in its time and we can readily understand and forgive those that believed it but now with our rich understanding of the brain and sensitive methods to examine how it works we can move beyond the supernatural explanations to the more plausible empirically testable natural ones.

Still today we might hear the comment about a wonderful musical or ballet performance that the performer had a ‘god given’ talent. Ask the musician or ballerina and they will tell you that their performance came from countless hours of repetitive practice rather than god. For most, it was more likely parental pressure to learn and a masochistic stubbornness to keep practicing in order to please the parents.

That is not to deny that there are as always special cases where students seem to naturally excel at one of the arts and this is most likely due to a beneficial set of genetic characteristics and a supportive family environment rather than divine intervention.

The classical Greek philosophers tackled the concept of beauty by trying to define properties that it seemed to have. Aristotle (2) stated that beauty was an expression of order (taxis), symmetry, and definiteness or determinateness (to orismenon). He dismissed the concept of an absolute beauty and saw it to be not associated with morality. He noted the absence of all lust or desire in the pleasure it bestows.

From the Enlightenment, the period when the philosophers started to seriously question whether god was the origin of everything, the thinkers in Europe began to examine beauty as the key component of the arts and the origin of the aesthetic experience. They struggled with what type of pleasure was invoked by beauty. It wasn’t a sexual experience invoked through touch or one that aroused the emotions like watching a bull fight.

Similar to Aristotle, Hutcheson (3) conceived of beauty as a disinterested pleasure, one that could be gained by simply viewing it or hearing it, a pleasure that couldn’t be possessed. Can one possess the beauty of a sunset or the sound of young child laughing?

Baumgarten (4) wrote that aesthetics was the science of the sense experience and beauty was the most perfect kind of knowledge that the sense experience can have. He was talking about poetry and considered that beautiful poetry gave a sensory response much greater than indicated by the brevity of the words. It was more information dense and interacted strongly with the imagination to give a great pleasurable response.

I might infer from this that he was saying that if I normally heard a poem it would paint an image in my mind. A beautiful poem to me of the same size would have a special perfect combination of words, structure, metre, rhythm and rhyme that would go well beyond just creating the image but also overload my imagination in such a way as to give a bonus pleasurable feeling.

This approach suggests that poems could be examined empirically even though this was not suggested by Baumgarten at the time. It also suggests why certain people might think that one poem is beautiful while another might think that is ordinary.

If the poem is to overload the imagination then there must be some part of the imagination that it appeals to. It must be sensitive to context. If the poem was about a horse and I was not a horse lover or I had never seen a horse then it seems unlikely that I would have my imagination overloaded to the extent that I would get a pleasurable experience.

In more general terms, if words are memes for mental concepts and some memes have significant emotional content attached to them through personal experience, then it is not surprising that a collection of memes with a higher personal emotional content will elicit a stronger mental response. A beautiful poem about love might be beautiful because our experiences with love have left a very positive influence upon our emotions. However, immediately after a divorce the same poem may not be beautiful at all but intensely painful.

Addison (5) believed that the imagination might be overloaded not only by the beautiful but also the novel and the great. The novel was something of unusual elegance, perhaps a lovely dress that stands out from the rest or a building that is in perfect harmony with its surroundings. The novel is often referred to as the picturesque.

The great is more often called the sublime and relates to a natural panoramic view as might be seen in sweeping view of a valley with a river receding off to distant mountains or perhaps a vision of the sea and coastline from a mountain top or a wondrous sunset or the milky way spread out across the night sky that inspires a sense of awe.

These concepts can be extended to visual arts where the information density of an image is as important as the form, ratio and proportion. Using information theory, Schmidhuber (6), believes that a beautiful image is defined as one that gives a perfect representation of the concept but with the minimum amount of information which equates to Baumgarten’s maximal information density concept.

Schmidhuber pointed out that mathematicians find simple elegant proofs of theorems with a minimal description to be beautiful. I can vouch for that. His theory also explicitly distinguishes between what's beautiful and what's just interesting, stating that interestingness corresponds to the first derivative of subjectively perceived beauty.

Dan Eden in his article 'What Exactly is Beauty?' (7) looks at a wide range of studies in an attempt to discover what men and women find beautiful in the opposite sex. It reveals how complex the issues are. Both sexes are influenced by a wide range of genetic, environmental, cultural and social and temporal conditions. In other words what is beautiful is a moving target. This is not surprising look how quickly the fashion industry changes.

One thing interesting was when males or females were asked to rate dozens of the opposite sex’s faces for beauty, it was found that the most beautiful was closest to the average of all the faces in the study if they were overlaid. Since it is believed that our brains use neural networks which develop algorithms based on averaging image data it is not surprising that the most beautiful face is the one easiest and most accurate for the mental algorithm to fit. (8)

However, this may not be the case with music. It doesn’t seem to need an experience based context to have an effect. Different types of music elicit different emotional responses under different environmental situations. The areas where these responses occur can be identified in areas of the brain known to be involved in emotional responses using modern MRI and PET neuro-imaging techniques. (9)

Interestingly, some music critics such as Hanslick (10) have argued that instrumental music has absolute qualities of beauty that set it apart from simply evoking or playing to the emotions. They even go as far as to arguing that only instrumental music can be considered real music. Any music accompanied by other artistic activities be it voice, ballet, opera etc is not real music. I see this a great example of cultural snobbery.

Baumgarten gave aesthetics its name and countless philosophers before and after him have tried to capture and understand the essence of beauty singing its virtues relating it to moral goodness(11), absolute spirit(12), freedom of the intellect(13) and so on.

Oscar Wilde (14), championed beauty for beauty's sake stating Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.

While praising of the virtues of beauty is all very nice, it doesn’t explain to me personally the nature of my aesthetic experience. I think Baumgarten was close to the truth, an aesthetic experience can be defined in the magnitude of an emotional response to stimulation by beauty to one or more of my senses. In other words, when I experience something beautiful, it stands out immediately as one of the best and near perfect examples of that form of beauty and it triggers a pleasure response in my mind.

So where is this pleasure response located?

The answer comes from the relatively new field of Neuroaethetics (15) which is an attempt to empirically understand the aesthetic experience using neuro-imaging techniques. This is not philosophy but science and it does attempt to answer the basic question in my mind as to what the nature of the aesthetic experience is.

Research in the field utilizes knowledge from perceptual psychology, evolutionary biology, neurological deficits and functional brain anatomy in order to address the meaning of beauty considered to be the essence of art.

A common approach to uncover the neural mechanisms is through the study of artists with neural disorders such as savant syndrome or some form of traumatic injury. The analysis of art created by these patients provides valuable insights to the brain areas responsible for capturing the essence of art. Another approach has been to image areas of a normal subject’s brain whilst they are asked to judge art or carry out artistic exercises.

Ramachandran and his colleagues (16), have developed a highly speculative theory of human artistic experience and the neural mechanisms that mediate it. The eight laws combine to develop underlying high order concepts of the human artistic experience.
The laws involve the Peak Shift Principle, Isolation, Grouping, Contrast, Perceptual Problems Solving, the Generic Viewpoint, Visual Metaphors and Symmetry.

The location of the aesthetic response has been found to be the Prefrontal cortex shown in the figure below in yellow. This area is also associated with perception of coloured objects, decision making and memory.

In a study performed by Kawabata and Zeki (17), it was found that the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC) a part of the Prefrontal cortex, is involved in the judgment of whether a painting is beautiful or not. The same area was found to be stimulated whether a painting was considered ugly or beautiful leading to the conclusion that the difference was the magnitude of the stimulation. The beautiful images received greater stimulation which then triggered a gratification response in the limbic system which generated the feeling of pleasure.

This could be considered an empirical validation of Baumgarten’s theory of aesthetics a couple of centuries after he conceived it! I’m sure he would have been pleased. Other areas of the brain are also associated with aesthetic responses from other non-visual stimuli such as music (9).

From these studies one can speculate that there was a certain activation level of stimulation that evokes the pleasure response which might vary between individuals. It follows that cultural conditioning or genetically coded information could raise or lower this activation level thus making certain objects more or less beautiful.

Considering the cultural conditioning perspective, it is known that Victorians in Britain often saw African sculpture as ugly, but just a few decades later, Edwardian audiences saw the same sculptures as being beautiful (18).

Why do we have an aesthetic response to the different forms of beauty?

Here I think the answer lies in theories from evolutionary aesthetics. Denis Dutton, a professor of Aesthetics recently (19) gave a convincing lecture based on his and his colleagues work on the origin of beauty.

He showed that humans see beauty in a wide variety of areas including other humans and animals, natural landscapes, art, and perfection in skills. He considers that this suggests a universal value exists within humans to detect beauty and the best explanation for this is that it is encoded into our genes.

He suggests that our aesthetic response to beauty began with the early hunter-gathers from prehistoric times and has evolved throughout our history to the current stage. He pointed out that there are other precedents for this type of evolutionary conditioning such as out dislike for rotten meat, our love for sweet and sugary foods, our innate fear of snakes and spiders, our fear of darkness and dark places etc.

He also suggests that a sexual selection similar to that selecting the peacock tail favouring beauty took place where hominoid females selected males who could show their skill and thus a greater level of fitness by producing something beautiful. He suggested that the object of art produced by the males demonstrating their skill was the Achalian hand axe which has been shown to be produced for more than a million years.

The hand axes often found with blades unused were produced by Homo Erectus who didn’t have the power of speech. He further suggested that as our culture changed other objects of art, clothing and hair style were used as a basis by the women to select the fittest male partner. This continual sexual selection process has evolved in us an in built genetically coded love for beauty.

In Why Music?, there are competing evolutionary hypotheses.(20) A person with a beautiful voice or that could make music or even appreciate it was more attractive than one that couldn’t. This would make a strong case for sexual selection.

On the other hand there is the argument that music also brought people together and hence was a socializing influence. Here one could argue that music brought people together so that the females could select the fittest males as those that they considered were more sociable. Regardless, of the exact mechanism most of us find some form of music beautiful and we probably owe it to our female ancestors.

Consequently, while the evidence is circumstantial and the theories speculative they do give a plausible account of both how and why we have an aesthetic response to beauty.

So can science explain beauty? Yes it can.

Beauty is a pleasurable mental response to witnessing an experience which an individual believes using his or her own judgment is well beyond the ordinary of its type and perhaps approaches perfection.

The experience triggers a stronger than normal response in a sensory area of the brain eliciting a pleasurable feeling via the limbic system.

Owing to variations in genetic makeup, environment and culture the pleasurable experience can be stimulated by different forms of beauty in different individuals at different times.

This pleasure response to various forms of beauty could have been selected through evolution into our genes through the sexual selection practices of our female ancestors.

It would seem that since the beginning of our species, artists have been working methodically exploring new ways to create art that embodies the essence of beauty. Perhaps in the future they will work together with scientists to extract the ultimate pleasure out of beauty. That will be an interesting experience.


1. St Bonadventure in Wikipedia on Western Medieval aesthetics.
2. Aristotle ,
3. Hutcheson, F. (1725), in Guyer, P. “the Origins of Modern Aesthetics: 1711 -35, Chapter 1, The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics ed by Peter Kivy, Pub. Blackwell Press 2004.
4. Baumgarten,A.G. (1735), in Guyer, P. “the Origins of Modern Aesthetics: 1711 -35, Chapter 1, The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics ed by Peter Kivy, Pub. Blackwell Press 2004.
5. Addison, (1712) in Guyer, P. “the Origins of Modern Aesthetics: 1711 -35, Chapter 1, The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics ed by Peter Kivy, Pub. Blackwell Press 2004.
6. Schmidhuber, J. (1997) . "Low-complexity art." J Int. Soc. Arts, Sci, and Tech, 30(2):97 - 103.
7. Eden, Dan. (2011) What exactly is beauty?
8. Wu, Y.; Bauckhage, C.; Thurau, C. (2010). "The good, the bad, and the ugly: predicting aesthetic image labels" . Int. Conf. on Pattern Recognition. IEEE.
9. Peretz, I. and Zatorre, RJ. (2005), "Brain Organization for Music processing", Annu. Rev. Psych 56, 89-114.
10. Hanslick, E (1954) in Alperson, P. “The Philosophy of Music Formalism and Beyond, Chapter 14, The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics ed by Peter Kivy, Pub. Blackwell Press 2004.
11. Shaftesbury, in Wikipedia on Aethetics
12. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Wikipedia on Aethetics
13. Arthur Schopenhauer, in Wikipedia on Aethetics
14. "Oscar Wilde" by Richard Ellman p 159, pub Alfred A Knopf, INC. 1988
15. Neuroaesthetics, in Wikipedia.
16. Ramachandran, V.S and William Hirstein. (1999). The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience. J. Consciousness Studies, 6(6-7), 15-51
17. Kawabata, H. and Zeki, S. (2004). Neural Correlates of Beauty. J. Neurophysiology, 91 (1), 1699-1705
18. Holm, Ivar (2006). Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture and Industrial design: How attitudes, orientations, and underlying assumptions shape the built environment. Oslo School of Architecture and Design. ISBN 8254701741.
19. Dennis Dutton (2010) lecture on beauty on TED recorded on Utube.
20., Why Music? The Economist.

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