Home Features Columnists Well That’s Weird: What Beauty Feels Like

Well That’s Weird: What Beauty Feels Like

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Image credits: kansasphoto
Image credits: kansasphoto

Back with your fortnightly fix of the worlds of science and psychology, Catherine Heffner talks about what beauty really is.

We can find beauty in the strangest of places. From a line in a poem, to a laugh, to a great guitar riff, to an equation, to the view from that train journey you took down to Exmouth last week. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a hippy – beauty is everywhere. But how is it that we can look at such a mass of contrasting things and identify them all quite easily in our minds as ‘beautiful’?

Perhaps the mystery of our perception of all things beautiful is explained in our biological ancestry. Denis Dutton, professor of the philosophy of aesthetics, believes the most powerful theory of beauty comes from none other than Charles Darwin. Dutton reasons that beauty is one component in a series of evolutionary adaptations. Through natural selection, we gained phobias and revulsions, such as the fear of heights or the disgust at the smell of rotting food, which act as protective measures. In the survival of the fittest, the populations best suited for their environment would out-compete all other populations. Therefore those organisms with phobias or revulsions that allowed them to avoid harmful stimuli would out-compete those who did not, and would survive and reproduce to pass their advantageous genes to further generations.

But on the flipside of phobias and revulsions, we have beauty and attraction, which serve for a very different purpose. Darwin observed many adaptations in animals that seem to have arisen via sexual selection. These are the adaptations that almost undermine the idea of natural selection. Take, for instance, the peacock. It invests a huge amount of energy and bodily resources into the growth of its incredible tail feathers. Even worse, it makes the peacock more vulnerable to predation by weighing it down and making it an easy target. So why would it bother?

This concept seems to have truly puzzled Darwin, who wrote in 1860 “…the sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!” But Darwin went on to describe how he had no doubt that the peacock’s tail was ‘beautiful’ to the peahen, and that the mating choices of the peahens must have changed evolutionary history. So perhaps the perception of beauty arose in the context of sexual selection. There’s even a school of thought based on this idea called ‘Aesthetic Darwinism’ which asserts that all human art can

Image credits: Madison Berndt
Image credits: Madison Berndt

be explained through these Darwinian ideas of sexual selection.

Now art is an interesting one to pick up on here. Some would indeed argue that the beauty we see in art comes from some subtle but deeply ingrained notion from our evolutionary history. Russian artist Alexander Melamid investigated this concept in terms of visual arts. In 1995, he attempted to figure out what it is that people find beautiful in visual art and why by surveying people from 17 different countries on their artistic preferences. The survey included questions about aspects of visual art such as content, style and colour. The results he obtained revealed some very interesting things about human concept of aesthetics. Predictably people from certain cultures preferred different things. For instance Europeans were more likely to prefer a nudist piece than Americans. However, there were many areas in which people from different cultures had similar preferences – for example, the rate of preference for the colour blue was remarkably consistent across all countries.

Image credits: FunGi_ (Trading)
Image credits: FunGi_ (Trading)

Melamid then created a piece of art based on the overarching preferences found between these countries – his attempt at the ideal piece of art. As it happens, this piece of art is actually a landscape and, amazingly, it closely resembles our early ancestor’s settlement. People reported that they preferred a landscape where water was visible, where there was evidence of bird life and greenery. They preferred a scene with trees that forked near the ground and where a path or shoreline extended into the distance. These preferences were consistent in people from all countries, even in the countries that don’t have this landscape! Some would say it’s reminiscent of the savannah landscapes that our early ancestors would have inhabited. Harvard Professor Nancy Etcoff believes this landscape reflects the deep evolutionary roots of the perception of beauty. All the elements in the art reflect the ability of the landscape to sustain life – water, shelter, nutrients etc.

But can our ancestral or cultural backgrounds really explain something as complex as beauty?

Perhaps the answer to the question of beauty lies in psychology rather than biology. Many people have looked at the brain to try and establish what we think when we perceive something beautiful. One neuroimaging experiment carried out by Blood and Zatorre in 2001 managed to find a psychological basis for ‘shivers-down-the-spine’ or ‘chills’. In the experiment, PET brain scans of musicians were taken while they listened to a piece of music that they found particularly thrilling. The researchers found that areas of the brain related to reward were activated (that is, the thalamus, midbrain), and areas associated with fear and anger (the amygdala) were deactivated. The researchers noted that these results are particularly amazing since music seemed to elicit the same effects on the brain as food or drugs of abuse, even though music is neither an essential element for survival, nor does it have a pharmacological basis like food and drugs do. However, these results may be much less surprising to someone who argues that we need beauty for survival, just as much as food or water or the air we breathe. As countless arts therapists have demonstrated, beauty in the arts of any form can have a wonderful power to heal.

World-renowned designer Richard Seymour doesn’t claim to be a neuroscientist, but his ideas on the perception of beauty are deeply focussed on the brain. Seymour identifies beauty as a very personal, particular series of sensations that he, as a designer, has tuned himself to pay attention to. He illustrates this by describing the lights in a car. It turns out that people generally prefer having the car light go from light to dark slowly in six seconds rather than in a quick flash. Why? Seymour likened this lighting effect to the beginning of a movie or a stage production. At the moment where the lights go down in the auditorium, you feel a sense of anticipation and excitement. Moreover, people who go to movies or theatre productions more frequently tend to have a higher preference for this design in a car. So perhaps it’s a learned association that accounts for this perception of beauty. Furthermore, Seymour reasons that since the neural pathways to the sensory parts of the brain are much shorter than the more cognitive pathways, you start to feel beauty before you even think about it. The instantaneous reaction to beauty is not a thought but a feeling.

So what then is beauty? Is merely the consequence of evolution or the carefully coordinated firing of certain neurones? Well, connected to all these ideas is the concept that beauty is a sensation. You feel a sense of reward or you feel a sense of desire. As Seymour puts it, beauty is a series of sensations. So maybe beauty isn’t something that we see but something that we feel. Maybe things we see as beautiful are just the things that make you feel full of ‘beauty’.

Catherine Heffner, Features Online Columnist

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