Under the Hood

Beauty Is Subjective But Simple, Researchers Say

From ancient philosophers to modern-day scientists, beauty was and continues to be a subject of fascination for many. In their latest work, psychology researchers from New York University (NYU) offer a new take on the experience of beauty.

The findings of their study were published in the journal Current Biology on Aug. 20.

Empirical aesthetics is a branch of psychology which focuses on how people experience beauty and art. The team behind the recent study are not new to the field, having studied and published papers on the topic before. 

"Beauty is famously subjective and supposed to be intractable by science, but some of its key properties follow simple rules," said co-author Denis Pelli, a professor in the Department of Psychology at NYU. "Philosophers have long supposed that the feeling of beauty is a special kind of pleasure. Yet, our analysis of research in the field shows that the feeling of beauty may merely be a very intense pleasure, not otherwise special."

"It is widely assumed that the experience of beauty requires prolonged contemplation. But our primer reveals that a fraction of a second is enough," said Aenne Brielmann, who is the lead author of the study.

The researchers conducted an analysis looking into everything from the Greek philosopher Plato, 18th-century German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde, early psychologist Gustav Fechner down to the most recent studies emerging in neuroscience.

Their findings highlighted certain features such as symmetry and roundness make things more beautiful — on average. In other words, one cannot overgeneralize the beauty of such features as they ignore differences in taste.

Furthermore, these differences are not insignificant.

"For example, the asymmetric beauty mark that is a trademark of the much-adored face of Marilyn Monroe is a blatant exception to the general rule that symmetry enhances beauty," said Brielmann, an NYU doctoral student.

Beauty carries a lot of significance in everyday life — consumers who spend money hoping to enhance their beauty, individuals who may use their beauty to escape or diminish harsh consequences, understanding how the standard of beauty differs around the world. 

In 1756, philosopher Edmund Burke wrote that beauty was "some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses."

And he was certainly not wrong as Brielmann and Pelli bring up present-day neuroscience findings to back up the poetic statement. Studies have shown that our experience of beauty does increase activity in one of the "pleasure centers" of our brain, specifically in the orbitofrontal cortex.

A clearer understanding of beauty could change the way we understand decision making, the researchers said. Just like neuro-economists have been able to infer monetary value from people's buying decisions, they believe similar techniques could help assess the value of beauty in more personal choices.