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Beauty is in the brain of the beholder

Written by Life & Style, Lifestyle

Against a shimmering background of warm orange, the sun appears above the horizon. It ascends unhurriedly, casting a sparkling reflection against the water below. Golden petals of light stretched ever outwards, gently nourishing the soul. A sunrise is one of many experiences which catch our breath and bring our mind to unburdened contentment. But it is not often we ask ourselves why we find things beautiful.

In a study conducted by University College London, 21 volunteers had their brains examined as they listened to 30 musical excerpts and looked at 30 paintings. They lay under an fMRI scanner, a machine that shows which parts of the brain are most active by measuring blood flow. Each painting and musical excerpt was rated either “beautiful”, “indifferent”, or “ugly”. 

The scans showed that the images and music provoked multiple areas of the brain at various times. But only one part lit up strongly in reaction to both forms of beauty – the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). The more beautiful each volunteer found their experiences, the higher the activity in their mOFC. It is not a massive surprise that response to beauty traces back to the cortex. After all, similarly to delight and disgust, beauty is a visceral emotion. The revelation that beauty sources back to the mOFC reminds us that it is part of the pleasure spectrum. That particular part of the brain has frequently linked to the recognition of delightful things, from the taste of fine wine to the touch of expensive silk.

It is not a massive surprise that response to beauty traces back to the cortex. After all, similarly to delight and disgust, beauty is a visceral emotion.

Perhaps the more pressing question to consider is, why does beauty exist? What is the point of being awed by a Monet impressionist piece or a Shakespeare sonnet? In the immortal words of W.H. Auden, poetry makes nothing happen. Beauty is simply poetry in motion, and unlike our more primal instincts, the pleasure we gain from this does not trigger any strenuous action. Instead, the only guarantee of such an experience is that we spend an extra moment looking or listening to something lovely. 

Pursuing and experiencing beauty can be described as the purest form of curiosity. It’s an emotional signal telling us that there is something here to figure out. Art merely seizes control of this age-old instinct. When we listen to a Mozart symphony, the feeling of pleasure keeps us captivated by the notes, as we try to uncover the pattern. If we gaze upon a Rothko painting, the twinge in our mOFC tells us it is more than an insignificant splash of colour. Our reading slows and time stands still when we read an appealing line of a poem, as we take an extra moment to understand its meaning. In short, this feeling tells us what is worth making sense of and what to ignore. It makes a difficult problem seem inexplicably easy – and has us addicted, coming back for more. 

Pursuing and experiencing beauty can be described as the purest form of curiosity.

Above all, however, the only point of beauty is that we make time to experience it. The pursuit of it is free and effortless, and the pleasure we gain from it requires nothing in return. We can all take an extra second to savour each time we have this feeling. 

For if we go through life experiencing beauty in every moment – the life lived would be a happy one.

Featured Image: David Gomes on Pexels

Last modified: 14th July 2020

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