What is Beauty? We find it in people, landscapes, nature, music, and art. What happens in our brain when we perceive Beauty? Why is it that in whatever way we experience it, whether it be through sight, smell, taste, touch or hearing, Beauty always makes us feel a form of pleasure ascribable to ‘beauty’?
Throughout history artists, philosophers, and scientists have tried to give a definition to Beauty without succeeding definitively.
Although our aesthetic sense is as old as human history (there has never been a human population that did not develop some form of aesthetic sense), ancient theories of aesthetic experience tended to separate the Physics from the Metaphysics of Beauty. That is, they separated the sensory experience – Physics – (what the body perceives through the five senses) from the idea of aesthetics – Metaphysics – (the conceptualization of beauty that responds to rules of symmetry and harmony).
In the Greek world, specifically, the idea of Beauty was considered from the point of view of Metaphysics, i.e., of what is beyond and at the basis of Physics. The Metaphysical idea of Beauty finds its roots in the philosophical thought first of Pythagoras and then of Plato. The form or idea of beauty, beyond the experience of the senses, corresponded to numbers, order, symmetry, proportion, and harmony.
The idea of beauty was, therefore, traceable to mathematical formulas. As is well known, at the entrance to the Platonic Academy stood the phrase: ‘Only those who have studied geometry may enter’.
The most famous Greek mathematical formula that conveyed the idea of Beauty was the Golden Ratio: 1.618 the Divine Proportion, also closely linked to the Fibonacci number sequence. In nature, this ratio recurs everywhere: from spiral galaxies to plants, from shells to flower petals and butterfly wings. The Golden Section influences not only the way we perceive nature, art, and architecture, but also the way we question ourselves.
Later, however, Aristotle renewed the idea of aesthetic experience. Although Beauty remained a matter of order and measure, the ideal form of beauty could no longer be distinguished from sensible matter. Physics could not be separated from Metaphysics. The impossibility of separating the plane of the idea from that of the concrete experience of beauty constituted the essential element of the modern conception of Beauty.
Along these lines, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolutionary aesthetics made a real reappraisal of the corporeal dimension of Beauty. For Darwin, the sense of aesthetics not only played a fundamental role in the aesthetic evolution of the species, but specifically, even shaped our physical appearance, according to aesthetic preferences that were useful and advantageous in terms of adaptation. Nature has endowed us with the ability to perceive beauty to survive, thrive and evolve.
We are created by Beauty, we are shaped by it, it keeps us alive: this is why we are driven to seek it and create it in our turn. It is an innate tension to transform the world into beauty.
Only recently, neurological studies on the aesthetic sense have shown how the metaphysical and physical idea of beauty are one in the experience of beauty.
What happens to our brain when we enjoy a work of art or listen to a piece of music? What is the secret relationship between the aesthetic sense and mathematics (or, to quote Plato, the idea of beauty)? It would appear that the human brain is capable of recognizing mathematical forms and proportions that can be concretely linked to the bodily experience of beauty.
According to research conducted by neuroscientist Semir Zeki, Professor at University College London, the objective root of beauty is recognized by everyone. Using CT and MRI scans, he has shown that when we experience beauty, whether in music, visual art, architecture, mathematics or physical beauty, a specific part of the brain is always activated: the medial orbitofrontal cortex, as the center of emotional pleasure.
The results of this research are very interesting because they show that both Metaphysical and Physical beauty are related to the activity of a part of the human brain. This confirms, to some extent, the ancient Greek theories that saw beauty, Kalos, as signifying both Metaphysical and Physical Beauty.
The experience of Beauty activates, in fact, that part of the brain that reacts to sensory stimuli and parts of the brain that are suited to cognitive and intellectual processes (e.g., in solving mathematical problems). Here we return to the link between the experience of Beauty and the Golden Section.
Beauty is part rational, part emotional, part learned, part instinctive, psychological, scientific, and artistic. The study of Beauty from a scientific and artistic point of view has always led to new insights and new discoveries. Every time we seem to be closer to the definitive answer, but this is never the case. We always need to go further. The study of Beauty is constantly evolving and developing so that the search remains as eternal as Beauty itself, in a journey that never stops, an eternal journey.
Indeed, throughout the history of art, there have been numerous examples of the Golden Section, from the Parthenon in Athens to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, from Vitruvian Man to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, to name but a few, right up to the works created by Venezuelan architect and artist Rafael Araujo, as a splendid fusion of art, mathematics and science.
(Image taken from www.rafael-araujo.com; author of the image Rafael Arujo).