Mathematics: Why the brain sees maths as beauty

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Brain scans show a complex string of numbers and letters in mathematical formulae can evoke the same sense of beauty as artistic masterpieces and music from the greatest composers.

Mathematicians were shown "ugly" and "beautiful" equations while in a brain scanner at University College London.

The same emotional brain centres used to appreciate art were being activated by "beautiful" maths.

The researchers suggest there may be a neurobiological basis to beauty.

The likes of Euler's identity or the Pythagorean identity are rarely mentioned in the same breath as the best of Mozart, Shakespeare and Van Gogh.

The study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience gave 15 mathematicians 60 formula to rate.

One of the researchers, Prof Semir Zeki, told the BBC: "A large number of areas of the brain are involved when viewing equations, but when one looks at a formula rated as beautiful it activates the emotional brain – the medial orbito-frontal cortex – like looking at a great painting or listening to a piece of music."

Written By: James Gallagher
continue to source article at bbc.co.uk

16 COMMENTS

  1. When I decided to study computers rather than philosophy I had to take a bunch of math classes. I was really dreading the advanced statistics class, the intro class required for psychology was boring enough I thought. But the teacher was amazing. He would talk a mile a minute and write at the same speed and all perfectly organized and structured and I would strain just to take notes. But every once in a while, e.g. after finishing a proof he would just stop and step back from the board, sigh, and say in a totally different wistful tone of voice, “isn’t that beautiful?” and damn, much to my amazement I totally agreed with him… it was.

  2. My math is the math of engineering, and the math of navigation. I have enough of it to understand how little I really know. There are times when I will look at a page of calculation, or the trigonometry of a starsight, and experience some of the same pure joy that music or poetry can bring. I still find myself looking through my old notebooks with the same feeling as looking at works of (far better) art. Now I know why. Thank you.

  3. I think that the opinion is biased; they asked mathematicians, and of course they like math. But ask me, and I’ll tell you horror stories of teachers that I had that were happy to fail those of us who didn’t understand, instead of taking the time to explain. I grew up hating and dreading math. The study is like asking a fan of heavy metal if they like it; you’ll get a different answer than if you asked somebody who prefers something more mellow, like classical music or jazz, and will say that heavy metal is all screams and loud noises and all around horrible. Ask the general population if they see beauty when they see equations, and I bet the results will be different.

    • In reply to #4 by korben:

      I think that the opinion is biased; they asked mathematicians, and of course they like math. But ask me, and I’ll tell you horror stories of teachers that I had that were happy to fail those of us who didn’t understand, instead of taking the time to explain. I grew up hating and dreading math. The s…

      Just what I was going to say. It’s like asking people who deliberately do something they enjoy if they get any joy out of it. I’m on the math side of the preference pile, ask me to write something and I’m sweating bullets. I would be daft to imagine this was how writers feel about their field. Seems like they have discovered small boys like puddles, who knew – everyone!

      As ever tricked into reading nothing by a misleading headline! Curses!

    • In reply to #4 by korben:

      I think that the opinion is biased; they asked mathematicians, and of course they like math. But ask me, and I’ll tell you horror stories of teachers that I had that were happy to fail those of us who didn’t understand, instead of taking the time to explain. I grew up hating and …

      Hello, Korben. My recollections of learning mathematics at school resemble yours – not a positive experience at all, unfortunately. I say unfortunately, because the likes of you and me have missed out on something, namely the knowledge that would make the beauty (not to mention the usefulness) to be found in mathematics accessible to us.

      We have to distinguish between the horrors we may have experienced in the mathematics classroom long ago and the understanding and appreciation of mathematics itself. I concede that people’s ability to do mathematics varies considerably, yet I am also of the opinion that anyone of average intelligence can work at learning the subject and gaining some appreciation of what it has to offer. To this end, I have bought a book on mathematics and am devoting two or three hours a week (I can spare no more at present) on learning more of this fine discipline.

    • In reply to #4 by korben:

      I think that the opinion is biased; they asked mathematicians, and of course they like math.

      I don’t think the claim is that mathematics is beautiful. I also don’t think this is testing “why” either. Rather it seems to me that it is a test of what mathematicians mean when they say mathematics is beautiful. Do mathematicians really have the same feelings as someone who finds a great work of art or music beautiful ? Or do they have some nerdy, geeky feelings that don’t correspond to real beauty ? If you believe that various brain activity correlates to feelings of beauty then this work confirms that yes mathematician do see mathematics as beautiful in the same way that people see art and music as beautiful.

      Michael

      • In reply to #13 by mmurray:

        @OP – The same emotional brain centres used to appreciate art were being activated by “beautiful” maths.

        I don’t think the claim is that mathematics is beautiful. I also don’t think this is testing “why” either. Rather it seems to me that it is a test of what mathematicians mean when they say mathematics is beautiful. Do mathematicians really have the same feelings as someone who finds a great work of art or music beautiful ?

        I see no surprise in the similarities of either effect or capabilities in maths or music. The wavelengths, frequencies and harmonic resonances in music are mathematical patterns.

  4. When I was about eight years old Patrick Moore was a supply “arithmetic” teacher at my school; I have very fond memories of him.

    But, then, the next teacher of the subject I encountered was a bully who took a dislike to me.

    On one occasion, having looked at my homework, in front of the class, he tore up my exercise book and threw in the waste paper bin.

    Ever since, I don’t mind admitting, I’ve had what might be termed a morbid fear of maths.

    But I get by, and I can fully understand Feynman’s love of numbers and the fact that nature is fathomable via their means.

    I’m having second thoughts about submitting this post here, of all places; ah, what the hell! I’m not so thick that I don’t understand the rudiments of arguably the most elegant of all discoveries, evolution, so what’s the problem?

  5. For me mathematics is a means to an end. Am I really good at it- no! Can I appreciate certain aspects of it- yes, probably more so than many others who simply crunch numbers and don’t recognize what is behind those numbers. I find that especially true when it comes to statistics, sampling and probability.

    But beautiful, never..

    That being said, I also have a great appreciation of the intricacies and complexities of heavy metal music and the classics but none for country and western and rap;-) jcw

    • In reply to #10 by rocket888:

      When did math become maths? Where did this change in Englishs arise?

      From the moment we acknowledged that we talk about “mathematics” and not mathematic, because it is a many faceted discipline deserving of a plural. The US will catch up on this.

    • In reply to #10 by rocket888:

      When did math become maths? Where did this change in Englishs arise?

      It’s always been abbreviated that way in the UK and Australia. The change occurred when Americans dropped the s.

      Michael

  6. Elegance is at the root of aesthetics, I suspect. The most said by the least. For me the visual arts peaked in their revelatory powers at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, when artists progressively stripped away ornament and detail to leave something like the necessary functional skeleton. The emotional engagement undiminished, even strengthened, a narrative laid bare and made profound by the least on the canvas.

    Oliver Heaviside is a personal hero (he certainly has more influence on my day to day work with the transmission of high frequency power than any other), a creator of mathematical elegance. Clearing enormous clutter and complexity from Maxwell’s twelve odd equations, he created great beauty in the four

    Physicists can have equations too!

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