Why Behold Beauty? Because It’s Sociable.

This I could not resist: Ed Yong and Jonah Lehrer have written intriguing fine pieces about a new study of beauty — or rather, beauty’s appreciation. The study examines which brain regions fire up when a viewer perceives something that he or she finds beautiful: It’s not a particular stimulus that evokes these distinctive brain patterns, in other words, but a particular response to the stimulus. As Yong puts it,

A beautiful thing is met with the same neural changes in the brain of a wealthy cultured connoisseur as in the brain of a poor, uneducated novice, as long as both of them find it beautiful.… The fact that the activity of their mOFC rose with the strength of their feelings of beauty means this most subjective of experiences can be objectively measured in the brain of the beholder.

The mOFC, as brain geeks will tell you, is the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain area involved in processing reward, pleasure, and decision-making, among other things. The consistency of its response to beauty in the study was startling. But as Yong and Lehrer separately explain, it’s not the first time researchers have tied the mOFC to beauty., so this comes as no huge surprise; we’ve found pleasure here before. Tt’s this area, Lehrer reminds us, that responds to “the taste of an expensive wine [or] the luxurious touch of cashmere.” But the starkness of the response in this study was notable.
What, Lehrer wonders, is the brain responding to — and why do we respond to it?
What’s the point of marveling at a Rembrandt self portrait or a Bach fugue? To paraphrase Auden, beauty makes nothing happen. Unlike our more primal indulgences, the pleasure of perceiving beauty doesn’t ensure that we consume calories or procreate. Rather, the only thing beauty guarantees is that we’ll stare for too long at some lovely looking thing. Museums are not exactly adaptive.

He’s onto something here: Beauty, or rather our perception of it (for only in an eye does does it reside), is a prod to curiosity. It’s a invitation to invest attention and emotion, which are expensive.But what does it get us? Jonah seeks answers in the brain, with elegant results. I rather like brain-based explanations myself — they’re meaty, and if you’ve read Lehrer’s How We Decide, you know they can illuminate things like decision-making in a way that no other approach can. Yet I find myself more drawn recently to evolutionary/adaptive explanations, partly because they seem in some ways more fundamental, and also because they offer a beauty I find alluring.

So what’s adaptive about the perception of beauty? What do we gain attending to beauty? I sense a hint of an answer in what seems a viable reason for why we like humor: it shows social intelligence as well as empathy, which are valuable assets in a mate or  friend, or for that matter a leader; I think it’s an important part of why we value Obama more than Dukakis. Likewise, I suspect we’re drawn to beauty because its creation hints at an even deeper sort of empathy — a communitarian spirit and regard, an impulse to make something that connects to others. It’s like the impulse to talk, but deeper.

I’ve had much reason to ponder this here in my year in London, as I’ve been surrounded and moved, countless times, by beauty created by humans: not just the incredible art in the museums here, which in a full year I have hardly gotten started on, but also in the architecture, the gardens, the exquisite parks, the countless ways in which the British seek to make things not just well but attractively, with particular attention to reconciling the natural with the human-made.

Though I’ve seen the great natural sites of the US and lived 20 years in Vermont, I have found no more beautiful (to me) than this; London is a place of extraordinary, aching beauty. The aesthetic sense and emotion and deep consideration poured not only into paintings by Turner and Constable and Paul Nash but into garden walls, bridges, and buildings, communicate an urge to transform the raw material of experience into something resonant with others: an impulse to not just create society’s necessities  — buildings, bridges, ships, gardens — but to make them beautiful. We’re attracted to this because it speaks of something something deeply prosocial, and therefore adaptive. Small wonder it is coded so firmly into us.

Thus even Wordsworth, of all people, our most famous nature poet, says of the view of London from Westminster Bridge. “Earth hath not anything to show more fair.”

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

He’s not looking at just a river, but a communal effort to both embrace and overcome the  natural world — and in the case of bridges, overspan it  — with something of beauty that also fits essential human purposes.

I feel this same elevation every time I go down to the Thames. I will miss this place.


Detail from JMW Turner’s “Chain Bridge,” c 1827

Palm House, Kew Garden

London across the Thames, by Wojtek Gurak

Changes: Jul 22, changed wired to coded.

Corrected medial orbitofrontal cortex.

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