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Beauty and the brain

Can you imagine a concert hall full of chimpanzees sitting, concentrated, and feeling ‘transported’ by the beauty of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Even harder would be to imagine a chimpanzee feeling a certain pleasure when standing in front of a beautiful sculpture. The appreciation of beauty and its qualities, according to Aristotle’s definition, from his Poetics (order, symmetry, and clear delineation and definiteness), is uniquely human.

A sense of beauty requires a brain as complex as the human brain: able to generate self-consciousness, thoughts and feelings, neural attributes that no chimpanzee or any other animal possesses. Beauty is a feeling that can only be born in the brain of an educated person within a given society. Beauty is a sentiment that emerges from the functional dialogue between the distributed networks of the sensory and association areas of the cerebral cortex, in conjunction with the activity of the emotional brain (the limbic system). Indeed, beauty is knowledge and emotion, and as such, is also individual, since it arises from personal memories and experiences in concert within the culture in which we live.

The appreciation of beauty evoked when someone is faced with a painting of Velazquez, the hurtful colours of Van Gogh, a sculpture by Rodin, the harmonious force and sublime cadences in the music of Beethoven, or the grandiose architecture of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, requires a high degree of visual and auditory consciousness, and a refined education in sensory perception. But beauty can also be evoked beyond the sensory world in ideas. Of course, a physicist could speak of the beauty of the general theory of relativity.

These days, new hypotheses are arising in neuroscience, based on scientific evidence, on how the brain may construct the abstractions (ideas) which are the building blocks of knowledge. We know that there are networks in the brain in which neurons respond to a single perspective of an object (form, orientation, and depth) but not to other perspectives. We also know that there are neurons that respond to the presentation of the entire object irrespective of the perspective presented, giving probable indication that these latter neurons synthesize all views from the previous neurons. Some of these neurons respond not just to the specific object presented but to different objects of similar shapes and colors. It has been suggested that specific neural circuits containing these last neurons are responsible for the construction of abstractions or an “ideal” object that may accommodate many different objects within that same category. Therefore, when nature shows us hundreds of birds of all shapes and sizes, movements and colors, songs and different behaviors, the brain is capable of creating the concept, the idea, of a “bird,” which summarizes all birds in the world. This “universal” bird is an abstraction created by the brain, an idealization of a bird that neither exists nor could exist in reality, thus making a “pure and immutable essence of the bird,” as Plato might have posited. This is how the human brain works, by categorizing and classifying the sensory world through concepts and ideas. Using this brain-based process of consciousness and abstraction, man attained the basic principles for thought, language, art, and communication. Art, in fact, is abstract and symbolic cognition, plus emotion.

Today, we know in part how the flow of sensory information through the different hubs and nods located in the sensory areas of the cerebral cortex reaches the emotional areas of the brain. It is in this last area that sensory information is labelled with reward or punishment, pleasure or pain. It is after this emotional labeling that cognitive processes are elaborated in the association areas of the cerebral cortex. Therefore, the brain, and particularly the brain of an artist, already works with ideas and abstractions that are emotionally meaningful. This should be very relevant for understanding the act of creation and the capacity of a work of art to evoke beauty. But what seems more interesting when talking about beauty, especially in relation to individuals contemplating a work of art, is that beauty does not really exist in the artistic work. Beauty is genuine and personal, created by those who contemplate the artwork. In other words, the beholder would actively create in his own brain his own conception of beauty which would involve both knowledge (abstraction or idea) and emotion and pleasure (pleasure of the finest nature, as Immanuel Kant would point out, involving less satiety and more durability).

All this leads us to understand how a work of art can be found beautiful for several people but not for others. Or how the beauty of an idea may be appreciated by just one person in the world. Or conversely, how a sculpture or a painting or any other piece of art could be recognized as beautiful by millions of people. In fact, it appears that when that creative personal process of beauty takes place in a large number of people in front of a specific masterpiece, it is then that the work is recognized as universally sublime.

Featured image: Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Wholtone (2008). CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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