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What makes something beautiful?

Dallas Museum of Art- photo by bluebeige designs


Beauty is a perceptual quality of ourselves and our surroundings that can give us a sense of pleasure and admiration. The object of our attention might have definitive characteristics that appear beautiful to some of us.

But sometimes, beauty is an indefinable pleasure that we cannot express in words as if we can't understand what is giving us the pleasure but it is unmistakably there. It's like listening to a great piece of music or looking at a piece of art by Kandinsky that makes no sense, yet it connects with us so profoundly that it gives us a sense of pleasure and harmony.

Neuroscience studies of art and beauty have shown a strong connection between beauty and desire. The same brain areas are activated when we look at something beautiful versus when we desire something. The works of neuroscientists like Semir Zeki suggest strong links between beauty and the brain. His studies, particularly the mOFC part of our brain, focus on the brain when we experience beauty like a piece of art or music.

So what is beauty? What makes us experience beauty? And can a scientific approach to understanding beauty lead us to a computerized answer to what beauty should look like?

The objective experience of beauty

Our brain is divided into different lobes. The prefrontal cortex is a section of the Frontal Lobe involved in cognitive processes and decision making. Inside the prefrontal cortex, Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC) represents emotion, taste and our reward and pleasure centers.

A study by neurobiologist Samir Zeki examined activities in OFC when someone encountered various visual stimuli. The study showed that the same part of our brain, the OFC, lights up when we experience beauty and when we experience reward, suggesting that the sense of pleasure we experience from beauty is connected to cell activities in our brain.

Multiple areas of our brain activate when we see an object, each specializing in processing different attributes of the object like its color, movement, shape, etc. Sometimes one area has a higher level of activities like the color cells when looking at a painting by Cézanne or Monet. So what we see matters for how our brain responds to beauty.

We often see color before shape, which impacts the information processed and how we perceive the entire experience of beauty.

When we process colors, for example, a green apple, a green square or a green pen, they all trigger the same cells that respond to colors. So our brain abstracts the properties of the color green, regardless of the object's other characteristics like shape and form.

These findings suggest an abstract quality to beauty and that the pleasure we experience from beauty is not linked to a particular medium. As Zeki explained, it doesn't matter if the experience is a painting, food or a piece of music. The mOFC is active during all that is experienced as beautiful.

Is beauty in the object or is it the way we perceive it?

What makes something beautiful is connected to the brain activities and our own past experiences and judgments. Hence the notion of beauty is a subjective experience.

interior by bluebeige designs

So can we objectify the experience of beauty? Yes, if we are talking about the activities in the brain. What beauty is remains subjective from one person to another, but brain activities are quantifiable, regardless of our subjective differences like background, culture, etc. If that's the case, can a piece of art be universally perceived as beautiful, regardless of our subjectiveness?

".. Certain forms and relations of forms stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colors, these aesthetically moving forms, I call 'Significant Form', which is 'the one quality common to all works of art."- Clive Bell

In his book "Art", Clive Bell describes this Significant Form as an unknown and mysterious arrangement of lines and colors that can provoke an aesthetic emotion in us. Bell puts some of the power in the object itself, irrespective of culture and experience.

According to Bell, this common quality in all works of art evokes a general emotion common to all mankind regardless of culture or time. Artists such as Piet Mondrain and Francis Bacon have used this universal experience of beauty to evoke emotions, relying on significant form and instincts rather than cognition and intelligence (elements of subjectiveness).

In an article published on Frontiers (article), Samir Zeki breaks down Bell's theories, particularly "Significant Form". He analyzes the Significant Form in the works of Cezanne alongside the cultural and individualistic differences.

The figures and forms in Cezanne's paintings are often distorted and manipulated to still communicate the artist's concept but without necessarily presenting the actual reality. The forms are distorted in the external world while still holding their significance and meaning in our brains (Form Follows Emotion).

Perhaps, Zeki explains the Significant Form with a much more realistic approach than Bell's. For a piece of art with any forms and lines to evoke emotion in us, we first need to perceive the piece visually. We see with our eyes but our brain, memory process and mindset strongly impact what we see and how we interpret things (Architecture of the brain & Design of the interior).

How we perceive the components of an artwork has a lot to do with our previously registered emotions and memories. So perhaps the aesthetic emotion that is aroused from a Significant Form Bell was referring to is better described as aesthetic perception.

Pablo Picasso
Picasso- MoMA by bluebeige designs

But are there significant and biologically-caused combinations of lines and forms that would activate our perception system optimally and in a way that guarantees an aesthetic emotion? According to Zeki, there is no one characteristic or set of characteristics, but it depends on the activated area of our brain. Specific configurations might stimulate one of the specialized visual areas of our brain but perhaps not all.

One interesting area of focus for Significant Form, or as Zeki puts it, "Significant Configuration", is human faces because there's certainly a particular configuration that we recognize as a face.

Only a few elements are enough to recognize the configuration as a face. Any invasion from this configuration will lead to difficulties in identifying the object as a face. There are also significant configurations that controversially qualify as beautiful compared to other forms and configurations.

When we look at a face, the Fusifome Face Area of our brain gets activated (FFA). And we know that when we find something beautiful, the mOFC part of our brain is activated. But as Samir Zeki explains, when we encounter faces that deviate from that Significant Configuration and are considered ugly, the amygdala is also activated in addition to activities in FFA. However, oMFC remained quiet. Amygdala is a region of the brain that is activated when we encounter threatening and fearful stimuli.

Obviously, not all arts are uniformly experienced as beautiful by all cultures and ages. However, the common correlation between beauty and the brain brings a sense of unified objectiveness to the experience of beauty. An artist could evoke the same aesthetic emotion using close enough objects to these configurations.

However, one question persists: Are we born with these preferences for beauty or are we brainwashed to adapt our preferences to society's standards? Or perhaps a little bit of both?

Beauty & Judgment: Do beautiful things grab more attention?

A study by the University of Exeter (here) suggested that babies as young as 1 to 7 days old spent more time looking at attractive faces. Researchers have shown that babies are more drawn to certain shapes and configurations like high contrast images. This suggests that babies are born with some perception system, which can also help them recognize familiar faces, particularly that of a mother.

bluebeige designs performed a small study on Instagram and asked followers to rate some of the most culturally famous paintings of history as "Beautiful" or "Not Beautiful". Figure 3 below shows the results of these polls.

The poll for Lucien Freud's nude portrait, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, was particularly interesting. Compared to the other polls, more followers voted on this painting with mixed aesthetic emotions of 73% Beautiful and 27% as Nope (Not Beautiful). This raises an interesting question: Are we more judgemental of beauty when we have strong feelings toward the object?

This article was curated and edited by Aidin Belganeh

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