Why Has Beauty Disappeared? #2

Universal principles of beauty, like fractals, reflect the order of living organisms.
Universal principles of beauty, like fractals, reflect the order of living organisms. Photo by Daniel Öberg on Unsplash

As we have discussed in the first part of this article, fashion and beauty ideals have shifted and often turned into their opposites over the centuries. However, the idea that beauty is only subjective is still troublesome. There are many iconic works of art such as the music of Beethoven or the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo, which are experienced as beautiful by those who belong to very different cultures, backgrounds and ethnic groups.

Indeed, Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment speculated on the existence of a “sensus communis” – aesthetic judgments shared by nearly all people. From a neuroscientific perspective, the existence of such a sense would imply a similar brain organization across individuals and cultures, stimulated by such art works.

Neuroaesthetics – A New Frontier

This is one of the topics investigated by the field of neuroaesthetics. Neuroaesthetics, which could be described as the “cognitive neuroscience of aesthetic experience” is a field drawing on long traditions of research in empirical aesthetics, on one hand, and cognitive neuroscience on the other. Neuroscience of aesthetics investigates the cognitive processes and functional brain networks involved in aesthetic experience. Its scope is to study a wide spectrum of these experiences which always result from interactions between individuals, sensory stimuli and their context.

The beauty of traditional architecture is usually enjoyed regardless of our cultural background or education.
The beauty of traditional architecture is usually enjoyed regardless of our cultural background or education. Photo by Alexandre Trouvé on Unsplash

Semir Zeki, a professor of neuroscience who coined the term ‘neuroaesthetics’, notices that while art has been traditionally associated with beauty, this idea has been also questioned in the past.

However, as Zeki reminds us, “it was Marcel Duchamp who gave a fatal blow” to the notion that art must be beautiful. Duchamp presenting first his urinal, named The Fountain, and then his Readymades, constituted a new notion: ‘‘art without an artist’’. Since then, our ideas of art have evolved, and today many acknowledge that something considered to be a work of art doesn’t need to be perceived as beautiful.

This leads Zeki to separate art and beauty in his research and to concentrate on a topic of beauty alone. In his experiments, Zeki asked himself, what was a common denominator to all the beauty experiences that subjects had when viewing different visual and musical stimuli. The results provide a neurobiological yet speculative answer.

No Disputes in the Matter of Taste

They propose that all works that appear beautiful have a ‘neural correlate’ of experiencing a change in activity within the brain region known as the mOFC. The mOFC is a part of the prefrontal cortex which has been proposed to reflect relative subjective value, however, some studies indicate that the mOFC appears to be part of a larger network of brain regions that subserves all value judgments. This can also mean that ascribing responses of the mOFC to experiences of beauty is still premature.

The proposal of Zeki shifts the definition of beauty and strengthens the validity of the Latin proverb that ‘‘De gustibus non est disputandum’’ (in matters of taste there is no dispute). Zeki’s studies don’t imply that objects classified as beautiful do not have certain common characteristics. However, what these characteristics are, continues to be a debate. 

This neurobiological definition of beauty proposed by Zeki takes aesthetics into the subjective, although quantifiable, dimension. Furthermore, this definition of beauty makes it unnecessary to consider other factors such as upbringing, culture, context, expertise and monetary value in the definition of what is the aesthetic appeal of art. However, all these factors may contribute to the experience of beauty.
Summarizing, Zeki’s definition is concerned with what a person experiences as beautiful at a given moment, nothing else. However, there is another question posed by some researchers of neuroaesthetics: is this finding meaningful in understanding aesthetics?

Common Qualities of Beauty

Seeking symmetry might be built into our brains.
Seeking symmetry might be built into our brains. Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

Artists and philosophers have been speculating over the centuries trying to provide an answer to a question about what is beauty. An English art historian, Clive Bell, wrote, ‘‘If we can discover some quality common and peculiar to all the objects that provoke it [beauty], we shall have solved what I take to be the central problem of aesthetics’’. 

As Semir Zeki proposes, in the case of visual art and architecture beauty could be reduced to qualities such as symmetry or harmony, however, it is a far more challenging task to define the characteristics of complex scenes which we somehow perceive as beautiful, be it a theatre, opera or a film. 

Let’s take a look at some of the qualities proposed to be inherent characteristics of beauty, and investigated by the field of neuroaesthetics: symmetry, shape and fractals.

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1. Symmetry

In nature and the world of architecture and design, bilateral symmetry is very common. As stressed by Sussman and Hollander, authors of Cognitive Architecture, humans evolved to prefer certain forms over others. For the sake of survival, we have learnt to process some elements of our environments very quickly. One of such elements is symmetrical faces. Research on the perception of symmetry provides a telling example of how our sense of aesthetics could be biological at the root.

From the biological perspective, symmetry aided navigation in our surroundings. Early life forms were not necessarily symmetrical, however, 99% of modern animals are members of the evolutionary group Bilateria. Sussman and Hollander claim that bilateral symmetry not only influences the way we walk or how we perceive, but it also appears to be deeply connected to our emotions and preferences. Biologists refer to this tendency as “an evolved preference”. 

By implementing certain basic principles, which we usually find in traditional architecture and nature, we can increase the odds that the design will soothe people’s minds and make them happier.

Cardenass and Harris’ study reports that people prefer symmetrical decorations. What seems to be significant, this tendency to implement symmetrical patterns, present in many crafts (pottery, fabric design, tile ornamentation, or architecture) seems to have arisen independently through the world, suggesting its essential role for our species. It also appears that symmetric objects contribute to faster mental processing of their form. Once we have read half of a symmetrical shape, our mind has already predicted the other.

There is also research suggesting that we tend to find symmetrical forms more appealing. Both men and women find symmetrical faces more attractive than non-symmetrical ones. However, the preference for symmetrical facial features is more likely to be universal that the preference for symmetrical art.

Interestingly, studies suggest that looking at symmetrical objects can subconsciously activate our “smiling muscles” more than looking at random patterns. When we smile, we are more likely to feel calm or reassured.
The neuroaesthetic research conducted by Vilayanur Ramachandran seems to confirm these studies. Ramachandran states that we have a ‘built-in’ preference for symmetry, and together with William Hirstein labels symmetry as one of the eight theoretical laws of aesthetic experience.

2. Shape

Curves are more soothing and preferable to sharp angles.
Curves are more soothing and preferable to sharp angles. Photo by Adam Cao on Unsplash

A body of research suggests that humans have a clear bias for curves over straight or sharp lines. “Curves are in general felt to be more beautiful than straight lines. They are more graceful and pliable and avoid the harshness of some straight lines”, proposed psychologist Kate Gordon, in her book Esthetics, published in 1909. 

Robert Ulrich, a professor of architecture, conducted a study on 160 intensive-care patients in a Swedish hospital in 1993. He monitored the patient responses to six different views: two of nature, two of abstract art, and two of a blank wall. Surprisingly, an abstract picture dominated by angular forms, made people feel more anxious than no picture at all.
A Canadian neuroscientist, Oshin Vartanian together with his colleagues, performed a test on 24 subjects who were given 200 pictures of architectural spaces to look at. Participants were more likely to judge spaces as beautiful if they were curvilinear rather than rectilinear. Vartanian proposes that this bias exists since sharp and pointed shapes were ever-present threats in our evolutionary past, so it was advantageous to sense them fast.

3. Fractals

We also enjoy organized complexity. Recursive patterns called fractals are abundant in nature. We find them in snowflakes, leaves, coastlines, and vegetables. Richard Taylor, a physicist investigating the nature of fractals, states that we have an innate preference for these shapes, hence our response to them is physiological. During experiments conducted by Taylor, fractal patterns generated the maximal alpha response in the frontal region, consistent with the hypothesis that they are relaxing.

By reflecting the organization of nature, fractals make scenes easier to understand.
By reflecting the organization of nature, fractals make scenes easier to understand and thus, more pleasurable. Photo by sergio medina on Unsplash

Another researcher, Ary Goldberger who is a professor of cardiology at Harvard Medical School and a researcher into a variety of topics such as heart-rate variability, complexity, and chaos theory, has proposed that fractals are intrinsically satisfying to the human mind.
In one of his papers, he pointed out that Gothic Architecture characterized by self-similar iterations of design and repetitions of varied shapes, such as arches and spires on different scales, is fractal. Goldberger suggested that when we gaze at fractal structures we feel more at ease.

Moving Forward with Beauty

Looking at the current scientific knowledge about beauty and its importance, we can’t yet say for sure, what beauty is. However, new buildings and streets are being finished every day and most of their designs are not informed even by the existing research. This needs to change. Because the goal of a pleasant design doesn’t have to be perfection. We don’t need to wait until everything is resolved and certain, since it most probably never will be.

We can already see that by implementing certain basic principles, which we usually find in traditional architecture and nature, we can increase the odds that the design will soothe people’s minds and make them happier. 

In addition to that, the principles of biophilic design, such as symmetry, curves, fractals, human scale and the use of natural materials, are not only psychologically important. They also allow us to consistently create architecture which is likeable and to which people can easily form an emotional connection. And this, in turn, is a necessity for creating sustainable cities, where buildings can stay in their place even for a thousand years because they are cherished and loved.

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