True Beauty

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is allYe know on earth, and all ye need to know. - John Keats in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

The scientific field prides itself in its objectivity. Truth is found by a search free of personal biases, personal commitments or emotional involvements. Still, a great many scientists have said beauty guided their way. For example, physicist Paul Dirac stated: “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit the experiment”.

What type of beauty scientists search for and find in their work is different from person to person and from field to field. Still there are some common themes: scientists search for simplicity and order –philosopher Hutcheson described it as ‘uniformity amidst variety’ - or for a sense of awe (Girod, 2006). Personally, I have experienced both in my work. I can spend hours looking at brain slices, amazed by the beauty and complexity of neural networks; and simple models that can explain complex behaviors or neural functions excite and inspire me to find similarly elegant explanations in my own work.

“The true subject of science is the beauty of the world”, said French philosopher Simone Weil, and from a motivational standpoint I strongly agree with this. However, I don’t know if we can say the same for the goal of science. In computational and theoretical fields of neuroscience, the simplicity and elegance of a model is regarded as very important, sometimes more important than its relevance to the brain. Should scientists allow themselves to be biased in this way? Or does our search for beauty compromise the quality of our work?

Hippocampus II by Gregg Dunn

Hippocampus II by Gregg Dunn

A couple of weeks ago my labmates Ju Tian and Mitsuko Watabe-Uchida (and others) published a study in which they tested different models of information transfer in the brain. What they found was not the orderly and simple organization we had always imagined -where every brain area performs a specific step of the computation- but a 'messy' picture in which every step of the computation was found in every brain area they looked at. When talking about her findings, Ju liked to use this quote from neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal: “Unfortunately, nature seems unaware of our intellectual need for convenience and unity, and very often takes delight in complication and diversity.”

Ju and Mitsuko showed that the brain does not always match our concept of beauty (unless there is a simple explanation for their findings that has just not been found yet). And why would it? Its structures are hidden behind our skulls, its electrical and molecular processes invisible to the human eye, it is practically unobservable. Why would there possibly be a role for beauty in something that cannot be seen?

Perhaps because it works the other way around. Perhaps our brains have evolved in such a way that we find the truth beautiful. Perhaps our brains can unconsciously pick up the main patterns of this world and dedicate a feeling called beauty to everything that follows those patterns. If this would be the case, scientists should let themselves be guided by beauty, because it could actually improve their work.

In order to know if this is the case, we should learn more about what beauty really is. The sensation of beauty appears to be quite universal with regards to natural phenomena. Several studies have found that people agree strongly on what faces are beautiful (average and symmetric faces; Langlois et al., 2000), and also on which natural scenes are beautiful (savanna landscapes; Vessel & Rubin, 2010). Interestingly, this agreement decreases when people are asked to evaluate unnatural phenomena such as art pieces (Vessel & Rubin, 2010).

In the brain, a specific sequence of areas is activated when people evaluate art. First, primary sensory areas (specific to the piece of art) become active, followed by the basal ganglia, the amygdala and hippocampus (Vessel et al., 2012). When a very strong feeling of beauty or profoundness is experienced, an extra group of area’s is activated that is part of ‘the default mode network’ (Vessel et al., 2012), a network believed to play a role in self-reflection.

These findings form good stepping-stones to the quest of what is beauty.

The studies to what faces and landscapes are universally beautiful were able to extract rules of beauty (for example, symmetry in faces). Extending these studies to more phenomena, for example scientific formulas, movements or music, might provide us with more of such rules and patterns. These will hopefully increase our insight of what beauty is provoked by and thus what beauty is.

Secondly, learning more about the specific brain areas that are activated during the sensation of beauty could teach us about which higher processes the sensation of beauty is part of. Does beauty indeed activate the same network as self-reflection does? And what about the perception of truth? Could it be that this perception also activates the self-reflection network? Comparing people’s responses when they learn something new to when they perceive beauty might show us if they are part of a common network, and thus if and how they are linked in our brains.

Finding out what beauty is will not only be interesting, It can show us scientists to what extent we should let beauty bias our research. Let’s use the ugliest science we have to answer this question, just to make sure we come to a true answer!  :)

Contrast (Order and Chaos) by Escher

Contrast (Order and Chaos) by Escher

Further readings

  • Girod, M. (2006). A conceptual overview of the role of beauty and aesthetics in science. Beauty in Science.
  • Langlois, J. H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A. J., Larson, A., Hallam, M., & Smoot, M. (2000). Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 390 - 42
  • Tian, J., Huang, R., Cohen, J., Callaway, E.M., Uchida, N., Watabe-Uchida, M. (2016). Distributed and mixed information in monosynaptic inputs to dopamine neurons. Neuron, 91, 1-16.
  • Vessel E. A., Rubin N. (2010). Beauty and the beholder: highly individual taste for abstract, but not real-world images. Vis. 10, 14 10.1167/10.2.18
  • Vessel E. A., Starr G. G., Rubin N. (2012). The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network. Hum. Neurosci. 6:66 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00066