Beauty may not be in the eye of the beholder, researchers warn.
The experience of ‘beauty’ has been the subject of fascination for both philosophers and scientists – and more – for millennia.
One widely-accepted idea at the moment is that we each interpret physical attractiveness in different ways – so different that there may be no sense to it.
How we experience beauty has also eluded scientists and philosophers, leading many to conclude that it is an unquantifiable ‘experience’ that could last minutes, days, or even a lifetime.
However, a new study by New York University psychologists has poured cold water on those romantic notions: they found that there are some clear ‘rules’ that make something more beautiful or not – and that the ‘experience’ lasts a few split seconds.
It is all part of a broader project by doctoral student Aenne Brielmann to understand how ‘beautiful’ factors affect our actions in day-to-day life.
New York University researchers are analyzing how beauty affects us. In this part, they found that there are some ‘rules’ that make things beautiful – and that the ‘experience’ lasts a few split seconds
‘Beauty is famously subjective and supposed to be intractable by science – but some of its key properties follow simple rules,’ said Brielmann’s supervisor and co-author Denis Pelli, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology.
‘Philosophers have long supposed the feeling of beauty is a special kind of pleasure. Yet, our analysis of research in the field shows the feeling of beauty may merely be a very intense pleasure – not otherwise special.’
Brielmann said she was drawn to investigate this assumption in the same way that neuro-economists study the link between financial decisions and the brain’s development to understand people’s shopping habits.
The complete project will take years, but to get there, Brielmann and Pelli are conducting a series of small studies to chip away at that question.
Last month, they released on segment of their findings: that beauty requires attention. In order to fully feel the beauty of a person or object, we need to be fully focused on that thing. Study participants who were multitasking while beholding something ‘beautiful’ were less moved by its beauty than those who were doing nothing else.
The latest installment of the project, published today in the journal Current Biology, Brielmann and Pelli, looks at whether beauty really is an indefinable, unquantifiable experience – or whether it is a quick hit based on measurable factors.
To investigate, they analyzed almost 2,500 years of writing and research on beauty – from Greek philosopher Plato to 18th century German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, 19th century playwright Oscar Wilde and early psychologist Gustav Fechner – along with the most recent research in neuroscience.
The study focused on the growing field of ’empirical aesthetics’ – a branch of psychology that looks at concrete ways to measure how people experience beauty and art.
They found that throughout history, for example, the most alluring angle for the curve of a woman’s spine where it meets her bottom has been 45 degrees.
Today, the reasons may be more sexual, but historically this was because our ancestors interpreted a curved back as a sign that a female could walk more easily while pregnant.
These ‘rules’ of beauty matter in the daily choices we make. Each year consumers spend millions of pounds – and countless hours – to acquire, or enhance, beauty.
Asymmetric beauty is another classic measurement of beauty, which has persisted throughout time.
However, Brielmann warns: ‘One should be cautious not to over-generalize the beauty of these features. Averages ignore the large differences in taste between us.
Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, for example, ‘is a blatant exception to the general rule that symmetry enhances beauty.’
The researchers also highlighted observational evidence backing a centuries-old claim by philosophers – that the experience of beauty is a feeling of pleasure. As one increases so does the other.
‘It is widely assumed the experience of beauty requires prolonged contemplation. But our primer reveals that a fraction of a second is enough.’
Ms Brielmann and Prof Pelli point to findings by neuroscientists that show such experiences increase activity in one of the ‘pleasure centers’ in the brain known as the orbito-frontal cortex.
The researchers say a clearer understanding of beauty could change the way we understand decision making, and that their study may be the one to offer some empirical reference points to do so – even if it does dampen the romanticism of almost everything.