A&O – BEAUTY and its attributes






A thing of beauty is a joy forever

(Keats, “Endymion” 1818)


 “Beauty is truth, truth beauty

(Keats, “On a Grecian Urn” 1819) 



Beauty, like love, doesn’t always make you feel good.  The constellation of ideas—beauty, joy, truth—and by extension the sublime[i] and the need to suspend disbelief[ii] in the face of certain truths may be pursued as we pursue all knowledge.   Can you experience too much beauty? Look in on STENDHAL SYNDROME (aka Jerusalem Syndrome).  


Biologists! Why would one pursue potentially distressing truths? Because one usually believes that “the benefit exceeds the cost.”   BUT  ALSO, the apparent truths of the moment are not as important as is the rejection of error.  The process is more important than the product.  


“Knowledge increases not by the matching of images with the  real world … but by a relentless bias toward the perception of  error.” (Kenneth Boulding 1980)



“What is beautiful is a joy for all seasons and a possession for all eternity.” (Oscar Wilde in A Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891)

Recalls Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever;  its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness” (Book 1 of Endymion) and “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.”[iii]


Such observations where time is rendered irrelevant by truth and beauty echoes transcendence are deeply spiritual in that an individual’s uniqueness may be open to transformation and then their senses and the deep meaning of the perceptions converge with context in a perfect storm.  A&O speaks to TIME and its relation to beauty   


Never doubt the potential power of art—possibly music in particular.  The great composer, Mendelssohn once played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the piano for Wolfgang von Goethe – a scientist but also the author of Faust.  When the performance concluded, Goethe  exclaimed,  “It is stupendous, absolutely mad.  It makes me almost fear that the house will collapse. And supposing the whole of mankind played it at once”  (Goethe’s comment to Mendelssohn after he played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the piano for him)[iv]



SUFFICIENT of ITSELF? (“autotelic”)

  • Oscar Wilde called Beauty “… a form of genius—higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts in the world like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in dark water of that silver shell we call the moon.”
  • EMERSON comes often to mind as considers the connectedness within and between all levels of organizatuon that is so clear to him and he exclaims, “all things sing to him”
    • A beautiful example accessible to anyone who wanders in nature was brought to the forefround by Maria Popova in her blog The Marginalian:   She writes,

      “A century and a half after Emerson observed that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things,” [Iris] Murdoch defines what we commonly call beauty as “an occasion for ‘unselfing’” — an occasion most readily experienced in our communion with nature and our contemplation of art. Murdoch writes:  “Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.”   

    • Amongst the attributes of beauty is Is its evocation of presence at multiple levels of organization from Emerson’s mud and scum to the sublime…that is,its capacity to draw together the vast diversity of the phenomenal world.  Arguably it is the pursuit of beauty that leads us to progressively greater creative efforts,led on by the prospect of becoming one with the truth we seek.

    • Monk and Moss 2023
    • In my own times of sensing any unhealthy or misguided sentiment looming over me, I see (or seek out) a stone monk who has sat unperturbed for many years now just outside my study window. He has become wonderfully accommodated to our shared environment.  We meditate together often.  The chaos that grows from perpetual study, too often replaces the subtle and delicate, often ephemeral, intimation of wisdom with easier information, and my trivia becomes retasked and returns me to the center.   The power of centipetal rather than centrifugal thinking.


  • “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” — Einstein[v]


And mystery leads to discovery:  Goethe treats beauty as a kind discovery: “Beauty,” he says, “is a manifestation of secret natural laws, which otherwise would have been hidden from us forever.”


RESONANCE? HARMONY?   Pascal famously ventured that “Beauty is a harmonious relation between something in our nature and the quality of the object which delights us.” 

·        There is something going on here … and we can’t be surprised that music is particularly effective: musical moments more easily touch something—recruit something—deep within us.   This  stirring … this momentary  alignment of sound and spirit …  recalls what Joseph Campbell called  “the crystalline purity of the bed or ground of ones own and yet the worlds true being.”

“ Like perfectly transparent crystal, [the song is there], and yet as though not there.”  And all creation both hears it and participates.  (apologies to Joseph Campbell 1968: 66)

·        Even the great 19th c. polymath Jules Henri Poincaré speaks to this: It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details.  (Poincaré, quoted in in Ultra Low Power Bioelectronics, p.3.  https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Symmetry)
  • Back to dissonance: the term “harmony” is used often to describe a sought for state … recall its anxiolytic importance in characterizing the resolution of cognitive dissonance   



  • “All deep things are song,” said Thomas Carlyle, “It seems somehow the very central essence of us, as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls!” 



  • Whether creating or appreciating music, it is a bridge between the senses and the spirit.  It is, as Beethoven put it, “the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.”    “There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music.” said William P. Merril.    Peter Shaffer, author of Amadeus. in an “Homage to Mozart” (1984) [vi], identified moments of great spiritual power for him … he was fairly precise:  the setting of the words “Tutti contenti” at the end of “The Marriage of Figaro;” or the harmonization of the Priest’s response “Starkt mit Geduld sie in Gefahr” in “The Magic Flute;” or  the bar in “Cosi Fan Tutte” at the reprise of the tenor’s tune “Un’aura Amorosa,” wherein a single note in the accompaniment descends a semitone, from F sharp to F natural.)

A great moment in music was related to me by a friend:  Howard Pollio had an Indian Hindu expert on spiritual consciousness visiting his class.  His poor English language skills allowed him to focus on only one point:  he sung the one-word prayer: OM, and beckoned the class to join him.  They began hesitatingly, significantly distracted by dissonances and the inability of some of them to hit the note they were aiming at: BUT with urging, OVER A FEW MINUTES, each individual, whatever their natural pitch or ability, was able to find their place in the harmony …  at THAT INSTANT, the wave of pleasure that swept across the class was almost tangible. (Greenberg 2011)[vii]



    Rien n’est plus beau qu’un corps nu. Le plus beau vêtement qui puisse habiller une femme ce sont les bras de l’homme qu’elle aime. Mais, pour celles qui n’ont pas eu la chance de trouver ce bonheur, je suis là.Yves  Saint Laurent (1983)  (“Nothing is more beautiful that a naked body. The most beautiful clothes that can dress a woman are the arms of the man she loves. But for those who haven’t had the fortune of finding this happiness, I am there.”) (show at Denver Art Museum, visited July 2012)



    BEAUTY and the BRAIN  

    • “The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones – the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.  
    • “Several studies have linked the mOFC to beauty, but this is a sizeable part of the brain with many roles. It’s also involved in our emotions, our feelings of reward and pleasure, and our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, Ishizu and Zeki found that one specific area, which they call “field A1” consistently lit up when people experienced beauty.”  (From Ed Yong’s blog essay “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder” (& see Note 1, at end)  (What else does the mOFC and “field A1” do?)
    •  ” All of the qualitatively different multifaceted processes of aesthetic perception are supported by dynamically configured neural networks.” read: beauty-and-the-brain-culture-history-and-individual-differences by  Jacobsen (2009)


     NOTE 1

    What happens when I stare at Portrait of Madame X or listen to Air on a G String? Both at intensely beautiful to me, but they are different experiences that involve different senses. Nonetheless, the sight of Sargent’s pigments and the sound of Bach’s notes trigger something in common – a part of the brain that lights up when we experience feelings of beauty, no matter how we experience them.

    Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London watched the brains of 21 volunteers as they looked at 30 paintings and listened to 30 musical excerpts. All the while, they were lying inside an fMRI scanner, a machine that measures blood flow to different parts of the brain and shows which are most active. The recruits rated each piece as “beautiful”, “indifferent” or “ugly”.

    The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones – the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.

    Several studies have linked the mOFC to beauty, but this is a sizeable part of the brain with many roles. It’s also involved in our emotions, our feelings of reward and pleasure, and our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, Ishizu and Zeki found that one specific area, which they call “field A1” consistently lit up when people experienced beauty.

    The images and music were accompanied by changes in other parts of the brain as well, but only the mOFC reacted to beauty in both forms. And the more beautiful the volunteers found their experiences, the more active their mOFCs were. That is not to say that the buzz of neurons in this area produces feelings of beauty; merely that the two go hand-in-hand.

    This study touches on an age-old philosophical debate about the nature of beauty. Ishizu and Zeki cite the book Art, in which English art historian Clive Bell asked, “[What quality] is common to Sta Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cezanne?”

    Bell was a proponent of formalism, a school of thought that places beauty and artistic merit within the properties of an object. He acknowledged the subjective nature of beauty but was searching for a “peculiar quality” or “significant form” within objects themselves. It’s a concept that Bell only vaguely defined, and it runs into trouble when you expand his list of beautiful objects to musical works or films or even elegant mathematical theorems. What qualities could these possibly have in common?

    Ishizu and Zeki think that Bell’s “peculiar quality” lies not in works of art themselves (pieces of music included), but in the brains of their beholders. They suggest, “speculatively and tentatively, and perhaps even provocatively”, that the act of experiencing something beautiful is accompanied by an active mOFC, and particularly an active “field A1” within it. Ishizu and Zeki are not suggesting that the properties of art are irrelevant. Instead, as they write:

    “Our proposal shifts the definition of beauty very much in favour of the perceiving subject and away from the characteristics of the apprehended object. Our definition… is also indifferent to what is art and what is not art. Almost anything can be considered to be art, but only creations whose experience has, as a correlate, activity in mOFC would fall into the classification of beautiful art… A painting by Francis Bacon may be executed in a painterly style and have great artistic merit but may not qualify as beautiful to a subject, because the experience of viewing it does not correlate with activity in his or her mOFC.”

    It’s an intriguing and pleasingly equal approach. 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.

    Indeed, Ishizu and Zeki recruited people from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds, and showed them many different images and pieces – mostly Western, but some East Asian ones too. They made no judgments about the art, merely how the recruits responded to it. 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.

    This doesn’t mean that all forms of beauty are represented in the same way in the brain, or that the mOFC is the only area involved in such representations. Edmund Rolls from the Oxford Centre for Computational Neuroscience points out that “different rewards activate different neurons in the OFC”. He says, “This specificity is important, for it is part of way in which actions can be directed towards a particular goal or reward.”

    Put it this way: if you scanned my house, and you’d see that the ability to browse the internet, make phone calls, print documents, write on paper and play music all stem from the same small part of one room. But all those abilities are governed by different devices – devices that just all happen to sit on my desk. In the same way, it’s possible that different groups of neurons within the mOFC (and even within the A1 field) correspond to visual beauty or musical beauty.

    Alternatively, other parts of the brain could play a role. The visual centres also lit up when the volunteers saw beautiful images, and the auditory centres lit up when they heard beautiful music. That’s as expected, but Ishizu and Zeki think that these areas also affect the perception of beauty”. It’s something that “provides a very interesting puzzle for the future.”

    Of course, this is a small and preliminary study but, refreshingly, Ishizu and Seki acknowledge that. “We emphasize that our theory is tentative,” they write. “[It] will stand or fall depending upon whether future studies of the experience of beauty in other domains show that, in these too, the experience correlates with activity in field A1 of mOFC.” For example, does a scientist learning about a “beautiful” idea experience the same buzz in their mOFC as a gallery visitor looking at a Monet?

    Reference: Ishizu & Zeki. 2011. Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021852

    Comments (8)

    • zackoz

    They “showed them many different images and pieces – mostly Western, but some East Asian ones too. They made no judgments about the art, merely how the recruits responded to it.”

    Isn’t there a problem here? How could they make “no judgments” about the art, if they selected the pieces? (Eg why mainly Western and some East Asian? Why not South American, for example?)

    They didn’t presumably choose them at random, so their selection may have had some hidden biases, which could possibly skew the respondents’ (unconscious) reactions. The respondents would know that they were being presented with objects they were expected to find beautiful.

    Not being any sort of expert, maybe I am way off base, so tell me if I am.

    July 6, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Very interesting. As Ed wrote, the study sample had some diversity in it. The article says “Subjects were drawn from the following cultural groups: 10 West Europeans, 2 Americans, 4 Japanese, 3 Chinese and 2 Indian.” I wonder what a wider sample of humanity would find. I also wonder if we face linguistic constraints by using the word ‘beauty’ to describe our emotions/ perceptions of different forms of art. Is the mOFC involved in perceptions of beautiful faces? Landscapes? Nature? This isn’t a knock on the study, just thinking out loud.

    July 7, 2011 at 10:06 am

    • AG

    I wonder how picasso paintings fair in this experiment.

    July 7, 2011 at 10:51 am

    • gwen reed

    from the study:
    “Each viewed 60 paintings and listened to 60 musical excerpts. The visual stimuli included paintings of portraits,
    landscapes and still lifes, most of them from Western art but three from Oriental art. The auditory stimuli included classical
    and modern excerpts of mainly Western music with two Japanese excerpts”

    I agree that it would be most informative to know what the paintings and music excerpts were.   I would rate most Picassos more beautiful than most Ingres, for example. As I would rate most Oriental art more beautiful than most Western art. Artists see differently, so I would like to see results from artists as compared to general population.

    July 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm

[iii]. Beauty and truth are associated several times in Keats’s letters: “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth” (Nov. 22, 1817); “. . . in close relationship of Beauty and Truth” (Dec. 21, 1817); “I can never feel certain of a truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty” (Dec. 31, 1818).

[iv] Story related by Maynard Solomon in Late Beethoven Music, Thought, Imagination UC Press, cited in Lewis Lockwood’s review in NYRB July 17 2003 pp 27-29).

[v]. http://www.aip.org/history/einstein/essay.htm   And also, Einstein quoted on pg. 289, Adventures of a Mathematician, by S. M. Ulam(Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1976). Apparently these words also occur somewhere in What I Believe (1930).  Another version:  The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.  It was the experience of mystery‑‑even if mixed with fear‑‑ that engendered religion.

[vi] The New York Times Magazine, 2 September, 1984. pp. 22-38

[vii] Greenberg, Neil (2011) Songlines.  Sermon at TVUUC August 17, 2011.