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Feb
3rd
Sun
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'Elegance,' 'Symmetry,' and 'Unity': Is Scientific Truth Always Beautiful?

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"Today the grandest quest of physics is to render compatible the laws of quantum physics—how particles in the subatomic world behave—with the rules that govern stars and planets. That’s because, at present, the formulas that work on one level implode into meaninglessness at the other level. This is deeply ungainly, and significant when the two worlds collide, as occurs in black holes. The quest to unify quantum physics (micro) and general relativity (macro) has spawned heroic efforts, the best-known candidate for a grand unifying concept presently being string theory. String theory proposes that subatomic particles are not particles at all but closed or open vibrating strings, so tiny, a hundred billion billion times shorter than an atomic nucleus’s diameter, that no human instrument can detect them. It’s the “music of the spheres”—think vibrating harp strings—made literal.

A concept related to string theory is “supersymmetry.” Physicists have shown that at extremely high energy levels, similar to those that existed a micro-blink after the big bang, the strength of the electromagnetic force, and strong and weak nuclear forces (which work only on subatomic levels), come tantalizingly close to converging. Physicists have conceived of scenarios in which the three come together precisely, an immensely intellectually and aesthetically pleasing accomplishment. But those scenarios imply the existence of as-yet-undiscovered “partners” for existing particles: The electron would be joined by a “selectron,” quarks by “squarks,” and so on. There was great hope that the $8-billion Large Hadron Collider would provide indirect evidence for these theories, but so far it hasn’t. (…)

[Marcelo Gleiser]: “We look out in the world and we see a very complicated pattern of stuff, and the notion of symmetry is an important way to make sense of the mess. The sun and moon are not perfect spheres, but that kind of approximation works incredibly well to simulate the behavior of these bodies.”

But the idea that what’s beautiful is true and that “symmetry rules,” as Gleiser puts it, “has been catapulted to an almost religious notion in the sciences,” he says. In his own book A Tear at the Edge of Creation (Free Press), Gleiser made a case for the beauty inherent in asymmetry—in the fact that neutrinos, the most common particles in the universe, spin only in one direction, for example, or that amino acids can be produced in laboratories in “left-handed” or “right-handed” forms, but only the “left-handed” form appears in nature. These are nature’s equivalent of Marilyn Monroe’s mole, attractive because of their lopsidedness, and Orrell also makes use of those examples.

But Weinberg, the Nobel-winning physicist at the University of Texas at Austin, counters: “Betting on beauty works remarkably well.” The Large Hadron Collider’s failure to produce evidence of supersymmetry is “disappointing,” he concedes, but he notes that plenty of elegant theories have waited years, even decades, for confirmation. Copernicus’s theory of a Sun-centered universe was developed entirely without experiment—he relied on Ptolemy’s data—and it was eventually embraced precisely because his description of planetary motion was simply more economical and elegant than those of his predecessors; it turned out to be true.

Closer to home, Weinberg says his own work on the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism had its roots in remarkably elegant, purely abstract theories of researchers who came before him, theories that, at first, seemed to be disproved by evidence but were too elegant to stop thinking about. (…)

To Orrell, it’s not just that many scientists are too enamored of beauty; it’s that their notion of beauty is ossified. It is “kind of clichéd,” Orrell says. “I find things like perfect symmetry uninspiring.” (In fairness, the Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall has used the early unbalanced sculptures of Richard Serra as an example of how the asymmetrical can be as fascinating as the symmetrical, in art as in physics. She finds this yin-yang tension perfectly compatible with modern theorizing.)

Orrell also thinks it is more useful to study the behavior of complex systems rather than their constituent elements. (…)

Outside of physics, Orrell reframes complaints about “perfect-model syndrome” in aesthetic terms. Classical economists, for instance, treat humans as symmetrical in terms of what motivates decision-making. In contrast, behavioral economists are introducing asymmetry into that field by replacing Homo economicus with a quirkier, more idiosyncratic and human figure—an aesthetic revision, if you like. (…)

The broader issue, though, is whether science’s search for beautiful, enlightening patterns has reached a point of diminishing returns. If science hasn’t yet hit that point, might it be approaching it? The search for symmetry in nature has had so many successes, observes Stephon Alexander, a Dartmouth physicist, that “there is a danger of forgetting that nature is the one that decides where that game ends.”

Christopher Shea, American writer and editor, Is Scientific Truth Always Beautiful?, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 28, 2013.

The Asymmetry of Life

                 image
                                     Image courtesy of Ben Lansky

"Look into a mirror and you’ll simultaneously see the familiar and the alien: an image of you, but with left and right reversed.

Left-right inequality has significance far beyond that of mirror images, touching on the heart of existence itself. From subatomic physics to life, nature prefers asymmetry to symmetry. There are no equal liberties when neutrinos and proteins are concerned. In the case of neutrinos, particles that spill out of the sun’s nuclear furnace and pass through you by the trillions every second, only leftward-spinning ones exist. Why? No one really knows.

Proteins are long chains of amino acids that can be either left- or right-handed. Here, handedness has to do with how these molecules interact with polarized light, rotating it either to the left or to the right. When synthesized in the lab, amino acids come out fifty-fifty. In living beings, however, all proteins are made of left-handed amino acids. And all sugars in RNA and DNA are right-handed. Life is fundamentally asymmetric.

Is the handedness of life, its chirality (think chiromancer, which means “palm reader”), linked to its origins some 3.5 billion years ago, or did it develop after life was well on its way? If one traces life’s origins from its earliest stages, it’s hard to see how life began without molecular building blocks that were “chirally pure,” consisting solely of left- or right-handed molecules. Indeed, many models show how chirally pure amino acids may link to form precursors of the first protein-like chains. But what could have selected left-handed over right-handed amino acids?

My group’s research suggests that early Earth’s violent environmental upheavals caused many episodes of chiral flip-flopping. The observed left-handedness of terrestrial amino acids is probably a local fluke. Elsewhere in the universe, perhaps even on other planets and moons of our solar system, amino acids may be right-handed. But only sampling such material from many different planetary platforms will determine whether, on balance, biology is lefthanded, right-handed, or ambidextrous.”

Marcelo Gleiser, The Asymmetry of Life, § SEEDMAGAZINE, Sep 7, 2010.

"One of the deepest consequences of symmetries of any kind is their relationship with conservation laws. Every symmetry in a physical system, be it balls rolling down planes, cars moving on roads, planets orbiting the Sun, a photon hitting an electron, or the expanding Universe, is related to a conserved quantity, a quantity that remains unchanged in the course of time. In particular, external (spatial and temporal) symmetries are related to the conservation of momentum and energy, respectively: the total energy and momentum of a system that is temporally and spatially symmetric remains unchanged.

The elementary particles of matter live in a reality very different from ours. The signature property of their world is change: particles can morph into one another, changing their identities. […] One of the greatest triumphs of twentieth-century particle physics was the discovery of the rules dictating the many metamorphoses of matter particles and the symmetry principles behind them. One of its greatest surprises was the realization that some of the symmetries are violated and that these violations have very deep consequences. (…) p.27

Even though matter and antimatter appear in equal footing on the equations describing relativistic particles, antimatter occurs only rarely. […] Somehow, during its infancy, the cosmos selected matter over antimatter. This imperfection is the single most important factor dictating our existence. (…)

Back to the early cosmos: had there been an equal quantity of antimatter particles around, they would have annihilated the corresponding particles of matter and all that would be left would be lots of gamma-ray radiation and some leftover protons and antiprotons in equal amounts. Definitely not our Universe. The tiny initial excess of matter particles is enough to explain the overwhelming excess of matter over antimatter in today’s Universe. The existence of mattter, the stuff we and everything else are made of, depends on a primordial imperfection, the matter-antimatter asymmetry. (…) p.29.

We have seen how the weak interactions violate a series of internal symmetries: charge conjugation, parity, and even the combination of the two. The consequences of these violations are deeply related to our existence: they set the arrow of time at the microscopic level, providing a viable mechanism to generate the excess of matter over antimatter. […] The message from modern particle physics and cosmology is clear: we are the products of imperfections in Nature. (…)

It is not symmetry and perfection that should be our guiding principle, as it has been for millennia. We don’t have to look for the mind of God in Nature and try to express it through our equations. The science we create is just that, our creation. Wonderful as it is, it is always limited, it is always constrained by what we know of the world. […] The notion that there is a well-defined hypermathematical structure that determines all there is in the cosmos is a Platonic delusion with no relationship to physical reality. (…) p. 35.

The critics of this idea miss the fact that a meaningless cosmos that produced humans (and possibly other intelligences) will never be meaningless to them (or to the other intelligences). To exist in a purposeless Universe is even more meaningful than to exist as the result of some kind of mysterious cosmic plan. Why? Because it elevates the emergence of life and mind to a rare event, as opposed to a ubiquitous and premeditated one. For millennia, we believed that God (or gods) protected us from extinction, that we were chosen to be here and thus safe from ultimate destruction. […]

When science proposes that the cosmos has a sense of purpose where in life is a premeditated outcome of natural events, a similar safety blanket mechanism is at play: if life fails here, it will succeed elsewhere. We don’t really need to preserve it. To the contrary, I will argue that unless we accept our fragility and cosmic loneliness, we will never act to protect what we have. (…)

The laws of physics and the laws of chemistry as presently understood have nothing to say about the emergence of life. As Paul Davies remarked in Cosmic Jackpot, notions of a life principle suffer from being teleologic, explaining life as the end goal, a purposeful cosmic strategy. The human mind, of course, would be the crown jewel of such creative drive. Once again we are “chosen” ones, a dangerous proposal. […] Arguments shifting the “mind of God” to the “mind of the cosmos” perpetuate our obsession with the notion of Oneness. Our existence need not be planned to be meaningful.” (…) p.49.

Unified theories, life principles, and self-aware universes are all expressions of our need to find a connection between who we are and the world we live in. I do not question the extreme importance of understanding the connection between man and the cosmos. But I do question that it has to derive from unifying principles. (…) p.50.

My point is that there is no Final Truth to be discovered, no grand plan behind creation. Science advances as new theories engulf or displace old ones. The growth is largely incremental, punctuated by unexpected, worldview-shattering discoveries about the workings of Nature. […]

Once we understand that science is the creation of human minds and not the pursuit of some divine plan (even if metaphorically) we shift the focus of our search for knowledge from the metaphysical to the concrete. (…) p.51.

For a clever fish, water is “just right“ for it to swim in. Had it been too cold, it would freeze; too hot, it would boil. Surely the water temperature had to be just right for the fish to exist. “I’m very important. My existence cannot be an accident,” the proud fish would conclude. Well, he is not very important. He is just a clever fish. The ocean temperature is not being controlled with the purpose of making it possible for it to exist. Quite the opposite: the fish is fragile. A sudden or gradual temperature swing would kill it, as any trout fisherman knows. We so crave for meaningful connections that we see them even when they are not there.

We are soulful creatures in a harsh cosmos. This, to me, is the essence of the human predicament. The gravest mistake we can make is to think that the cosmos has plans for us, that we are somehow special from a cosmic perspective. (…) p.52

We are witnessing the greatest mass extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The difference is that for the first time in history, humans, and not physical causes, are the perpetrators. […] Life recovered from the previous five mass extinctions because the physical causes eventually ceased to act. Unless we understand what is happening and start acting toghether as a species we may end up carving the path toward our own destruction. (…)” p.56

Marcelo Gleiser is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College, A Tear at the Edge of Creation, Free Press, 2010.

See also:

Symmetry in Physics - Bibliography - PhilPapers
The Concept of Laws. The special status of the laws of mathematics and physics, Lapidarium notes
Universe tag on Lapidarium notes

Oct
4th
Tue
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Richard Feynman on Beauty, Honours and Curiosity



Richard Feynman, American physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, Nobel Prize in Physics.
The Feynman Series is a companion project with The Sagan Series (Full playlist)

See also:

Richard Feynman and Jirayr Zorthian on science, art and beauty
Richard Feynman on the likelihood of Flying Saucers
Richard Feynman on how we would look for a new law (the key to science)
Richard Feynman on the way nature work: “You don’t like it? Go somewhere else!”

Sep
30th
Fri
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Why Does Beauty Exist? Jonah Lehrer: ‘Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity’

                          
                                Interwoven Beauty by John Lautermilch

Curiosity

"Here’s my (extremely speculative) theory: Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out. Art hijacks this ancient instinct: If we’re looking at a Rothko, that twinge of beauty in the mOFC is telling us that this painting isn’t just a blob of color; if we’re listening to a Beethoven symphony, the feeling of beauty keeps us fixated on the notes, trying to find the underlying pattern; if we’re reading a poem, a particularly beautiful line slows down our reading, so that we might pause and figure out what the line actually means. Put another way, beauty is a motivational force that helps modulate conscious awareness. The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

Let’s begin with the neuroscience of curiosity, that weak form of beauty. There’s an interesting recent study from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, led by Min Jeong Kang. (…)

The first thing the scientists discovered is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

The fMRI data nicely extended this information gap model of curiosity. It turns out that, in the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri. The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway.) The lesson is that our desire for more information – the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

I see beauty as a form of curiosity that exists in response to sensation, and not just information. It’s what happens when we see something and, even though we can’t explain why, want to see more. But here’s the interesting bit: the hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to an incompleteness. It’s what happens when we sense something missing, when there’s a unresolved gap, when a pattern is almost there, but not quite. I’m thinking here of that wise Leonard Cohen line: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Well, a beautiful thing has been cracked in just the right way.

Beautiful music and the brain

The best way to reveal the link between curiosity and beauty is with music. Why do we perceive certain musical sounds as beautiful? On the one hand, music is a purely abstract art form, devoid of language or explicit ideas. The stories it tells are all subtlety and subtext; there is no content to get curious about. And yet, even though music says little, it still manages to touch us deep, to tittilate some universal dorsal hairs.

We can now begin to understand where these feelings come from, why a mass of vibrating air hurtling through space can trigger such intense perceptions of beauty. Consider this recent paper in Nature Neuroscience by a team of Montreal researchers. (…)

Because the scientists were combining methodologies (PET and fMRI) they were able to obtain a precise portrait of music in the brain. The first thing they discovered (using ligand-based PET) is that beautiful music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. The more interesting finding emerged from a close study of the timing of this response, as the scientists looked to see what was happening in the seconds before the subjects got the chills.
I won’t go into the precise neural correlates – let’s just say that you should thank your right nucleus accumbens the next time you listen to your favorite song – but want to instead focus on an interesting distinction observed in the experiment:


                                                      Click image to enlarge

In essence, the scientists found that our favorite moments in the music – those sublimely beautiful bits that give us the chills – were preceeded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate, the same brain area involved in curiosity. They call this the “anticipatory phase,” as we await the arrival of our favorite part:

Immediately before the climax of emotional responses there was evidence for relatively greater dopamine activity in the caudate. This subregion of the striatum is interconnected with sensory, motor and associative regions of the brain and has been typically implicated in learning of stimulus-response associations and in mediating the reinforcing qualities of rewarding stimuli such as food.

In other words, the abstract pitches have become a primal reward cue, the cultural equivalent of a bell that makes us drool. Here is their summary:

The anticipatory phase, set off by temporal cues signaling that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. This reward is entirely abstract and may involve such factors as suspended expectations and a sense of resolution. Indeed, composers and performers frequently take advantage of such phenomena, and manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome (for example, by inserting unexpected notes or slowing tempo) before the resolution to heighten the motivation for completion.

(…)

While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like an intricate pattern of pitches – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. They want to make us curious, to create a beautiful gap between what we hear and what we want to hear.

To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains exceedingly curious for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.

According to Meyer, it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s beauty. While earlier theories of music focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences (its “connotative” meaning), Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. This “embodied meaning” arises from the patterns the symphony invokes and then ignores, from the ambiguity it creates inside its own form. “For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty – that crack in the melody – makes the feeling.

Why the feeling of beauty is useful

What I like about this speculation is that it begins to explain why the feeling of beauty is useful. The aesthetic emotion might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out it. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony – the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful.”

Jonah Lehrer, American journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience, and the relationship between science and the humanities, Why Does Beauty Exist?, Wired science, July 18, 2011

See also:

Beauty is in the medial orbitofrontal cortex of the beholder, study finds
Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty, TED, Lapidarium transcript
The Science of Art. A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience
☞ Katherine Harmon, Brain on Beauty Shows the Same Pattern for Art and Music, Scientific American, July 7, 2011

Aug
5th
Fri
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Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty

"There are many differences among the arts, but there are also universal, cross-cultural aesthetic pleasures and values. How can we explain this universality? (…) The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. (…)

It’s women who actually push history forward. Darwin himself, by the way, had no doubts that the peacock’s tail was beautiful in the eyes of the peahen. He actually used that word.  (…) We can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction. Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance, so to speak. I mean, you can’t expect to eat an adaptively beneficial landscape. It would hardly do to your baby or your lover. So evolution’s trick is to make them beautiful, to have them exert a kind of magnetism to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.

Consider briefly an important source of aesthetic pleasure, the magnetic pull of beautiful landscapes. People in very different cultures all over the world tend to like a particular kind of landscape, a landscape that just happens to be similar to the pleistocene savannas where we evolved. (…)

It’s a kind of Hudson River school landscape featuring open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees, by the way, are often preferred if they fork near the ground, that is to say, if they’re trees you could scramble up if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life as well as diverse greenery and finally — get this — a path or a road, perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline, that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful, even by people in countries that don’t have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.

The artistic beauty

But, someone might argue, that’s natural beauty. How about artistic beauty? Isn’t that exhaustively cultural? No, I don’t think it is. And once again, I’d like to look back to prehistory to say something about it. It is widely assumed that the earliest human artworks are the stupendously skillful cave paintings that we all know from Lascaux and Chauvet. Chauvet caves are about 32,000 years old, along with a few small, realistic sculptures of women and animals from the same period. But artistic and decorative skills are actually much older than that.

Beautiful shell necklaces that look like something you’d see at an arts and crafts fair, as well as ochre body paint, have been found from around 100,000 years ago. But the most intriguing prehistoric artifacts are older even than this. I have in mind the so-called Acheulian hand axes. The oldest stone tools are choppers from the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. They go back about two and a half million years. These crude tools were around for thousands of centuries, until around 1.4 million years ago when Homo erectus started shaping single, thin stone blades, sometimes rounded ovals, but often in, what are to our eyes, an arresting, symmetrical pointed leaf or teardrop form.

These Acheulian hand axes — they’re named after St. Acheul in France, where finds were made in 19th century — have been unearthed in their thousands, scattered across Asia, Europe and Africa, almost everywhere Homo erectus and Homo ergaster roamed. Now, the sheer numbers of these hand axes shows that they can’t have been made for butchering animals. And the plot really thickens when you realize that, unlike other pleistocene tools, the hand axes often exhibit no evidence of wear on their delicate blade edges. And some, in any event, are too big to use for butchery. Their symmetry, their attractive materials and, above all, their meticulous workmanship are simply quite beautiful to our eyes, even today.

So what were these ancient — I mean, they’re ancient, they’re foreign, but they’re at the same time somehow familiar. What were these artifacts for? The best available answer is that they were literally the earliest known works of art, practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and their virtuoso craftsmanship. Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human history — tools fashioned to function as what Darwinians call fitness signals — that is to say, displays that are performances like the peacock’s tail, except that, unlike hair and feathers, the hand axes are consciously cleverly crafted. Competently made hand axes indicated desirable personal qualities — intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness and sometimes access to rare materials. Over tens of thousands of generations, such skills increased the status of those who displayed them and gained a reproductive advantage over the less capable. You know, it’s an old line, but it has been shown to work — “Why don’t you come up to my cave, so I can show you my hand axes.”

Except, of course, what’s interesting about this is that we can’t be sure how that idea was conveyed, because the Homo erectus that made these objects did not have language. It’s hard to grasp, but it’s an incredible fact. This object was made by a hominid ancestor — Homo erectus or Homo ergaster — between 50 and 100,000 years before language. Stretching over a million years, the hand axe tradition is the longest artistic tradition in human and proto-human history. By the end of the hand axe epic, Homo sapiens — as they were then called, finally — were doubtless finding new ways to amuse and amaze each other by, who knows, telling jokes, storytelling, dancing, or hairstyling.

Yes, hairstyling — I insist on that. For us moderns, virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well. So the next time you pass a jewelry shop window displaying a beautifully cut teardrop-shaped stone, don’t be so sure it’s just your culture telling you that that sparkling jewel is beautiful. Your distant ancestors loved that shape and found beauty in the skill needed to make it, even before they could put their love into words.

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No, it’s deep in our minds. It’s a gift, handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.”

Denis Dutton, academic, web entrepreneur. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, (1944-2010), Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty, TED.com, Feb 2010 (transcript)

See also:

The Science of Art. A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience
Beauty is in the medial orbitofrontal cortex of the beholder, study finds

Jul
15th
Fri
permalink

Beauty is in the medial orbitofrontal cortex of the beholder, study finds

                                     
                            
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (c. 1503–1519) (source)

Beauty is in the forebrain of the beholder, a study has found.

Scientists have identified a region at the front of the brain that “lights up” in appreciation of art or music. But how active it becomes depends on personal taste, whether an individual finds pleasure from abstract art, classical masterpieces, grand opera or rock music.

The region, known as the medial orbito-frontal cortex, is also the most honest of art critics. It responds only on the basis of enjoyment rather than technical ability or “artistic merit”.

Professor Semir Zeki, from the Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London, who led the study, said: “The question of whether there are characteristics that render objects beautiful has been debated for millennia by artists and philosophers of art, but without an adequate conclusion.

"So too has the question of whether we have an abstract sense of beauty, that is to say one which arouses in us the same powerful emotional experience regardless of whether its source is, for example, musical or visual. It was time for neurobiology to tackle these fundamental questions."

Professor Zeki’s team recruited 21 volunteers from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, who were asked to rate a series of paintings or musical excerpts as “beautiful, indifferent or ugly”. The participants then looked at the pictures or listened to the music again while undergoing a functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scan.

Music and art previously rated as “beautiful” both stimulated activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex, which lessened when volunteers were “indifferent”. In contrast, no brain region in particular responded to works rated as “ugly”.

Professor Zeki said: "Almost anything can be considered art but we argue that only creations whose experience correlates with activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex would fall into the classification of beautiful art." (…)

"A painting by Francis Bacon, for example, may have great artistic merit but may not qualify as beautiful. The same can be said for some of the more ‘difficult’ classical composers - and whilst their compositions may be viewed as more ‘artistic’ than rock music, to someone who finds the latter more rewarding and beautiful, we would expect to see greater activity in the particular brain region when listening to Van Halen than when listening to Wagner."

Beauty? Why, it’s all in the mind, The Scotsman, 07 July 2011, and in Wellcome Trust, July 7, 2011.

See also:

Beauty is in the brain of the beholder, Discover Magazine
☞ Ishizu & Zeki, Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty, PLoS ONE, 2011
Beauty in a smile: the role of medial orbitofrontal cortex in facial attractiveness (pdf), Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, London
☞ Alumit Ishai, Sex, beauty and the orbitofrontal cortex (pdf), Institute of Neuroradiology, University of Zurich
☞ Edmund T. Rolls, Fabian Grabenhorst, The orbitofrontal cortex and beyond: From affect to decision-making (pdf), University of Oxford, Department of Experimental Psychology, 2008
Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty, TED
The Science of Art. A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience, Lapidarium
Why Does Beauty Exist? Jonah Lehrer: ‘Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity’

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The Science of Art. A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience


"We suggest in this essay that artists either consciously or unconsciously deploy certain rules or principles (we call them laws) to titillate the visual areas of the brain. Some of these laws, we believe, are original to this article—at least in the context of art. Others (such as grouping) have been known for a long time and can be found in any art manual, but the question of why a given principle should be effective is rarely raised: the principle is usually just presented as a rule-of-thumb. In this essay we try to present all (or many) of these laws together and provide a coherent biological framework, for only when they are all considered simultaneously and viewed in a biological context do they begin to make sense.

There are in fact three cornerstones to our argument. First, what might loosely be called the ‘internal logic’ of the phenomenon (what we call ‘laws’ in this essay). Second, the evolutionary rationale: the question of why the laws evolved and have that particular form (e.g. grouping facilitates object perception). And third, the neurophysiology (e.g. grouping occurs in extrastriate areas and is facilitated by synchronization of spikes and direct limbic activation). All three of these need to be in place—and must inform each other—before we can claim to have ‘understood’ any complex manifestation of human nature — such as art.”

More: — V.S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist best known for his work in the fields of behavioral neurology and psychophysics, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego, and William Hirstein, The Science of Art. A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience (pdf)

Neurobiology, Neurology and Art and Aesthetics



Two world-renowned scientists, neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux and neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran share their insights into the neurobiology that mediates our perception of universal qualities essential to the human experiences of aesthetics and creativity. (2009)

Art, Neurobiology, and Mescaline: The Neuroaesthetics of Semir Zeki

“Beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities….”Plato, The Symposium

Neuroaesthetic research shows that the brain looks for necessary features and then distills and abstracts a limited version of what it sees because of its limited memory system.

Semir Zeki, professor of neurobiology at University College London (UCL), is a pioneer in the field of neuroaesthetics. He is also founder of the Institute of Neuroaesthetics, co-located at UCL and in Berkeley, California. Professor Zeki’s research into the brain’s visual system shows that great artists unwittingly expose and express the physiology of the brain in their work, using the same visual building blocks the brain uses to put together a mental picture. However, Zeki says we are not equipped to remember every detail of what we see. (…)

The UCL Laboratory of Neurobiology has used a variety of techniques over the past forty years to study the relationship of visual art to the functioning of the visual brain. This includes the anatomical structure and connections of the visual brain, plus electro-physiological and electro-encephalographic studies to determine which cells respond to visual stimuli, and psychophysical studies to determine perceptual capacities and limitations. Imaging is used to determine the location and functioning of the many parallel and specialized sub-systems, and inactivation techniques show what happens when a given area of the visual brain is temporarily inactivated. The UCL lab also studies patients with visual brain damage in order to characterize better how the visual brain functions.

Are there quantifiable, describable, universal aspects to beauty? The world’s oldest known example of abstract art, dating back more than 70,000 years, was found in a cave in South Africa. It has complex geometric patterns including a double-wave pattern. Such patterns are iconic — having a distinctive style — and entoptic. Entoptics are geometric patterns with origins in the nervous system itself, whereas hallucinations are iconic and culturally determined and may be experienced in senses other than the visual: aural, visual, tactile, olfactory and synesthetic.

MescalLittle-known German psychologist Heinrich Klüver was intrigued with the possibility of universal entoptic and iconic images. He began his scientific career at the beginning of the 20th century studying the nature of visual perception in children. He continued this psychological research as a graduate student at Stanford University studying eideteker — photographic memory — in young children with unusually strong visual imagery.

In 1926 Klüver became interested in mescal “buttons” (peyote, the dried tops of the cactus Lophophorus Williamsii) because of the connection to eidetic visual phenomena: mescal visions were thought to resemble visual eidetic imagery. He noticed that the hallucinations seemed to occur in two stages, the first being related to four geometric types: the grid (described variously as lattice, filigree, honeycomb, grating, fretwork or chessboard), cobwebs, tunnel (also associated with cone, vessel, funnel, alley), and spirals. The second stage was that of iconic images which Klüver interpreted as being drawn from memory. There seemed to be thematic constants in the more elaborate iconic images, the most common were religious symbols and images, followed by images of small animals and human beings.

MescalBased on the similarity of the mescal-induced geometric shapes to the hallucinations experienced under various conditions such as migraine, sensory deprivation, and the hypnagogic state that occurs in the transition from wakefulness to sleep, Klüver named the shapes “form constants.” Entoptic phenomena involve phosphenes (or entoptics) generated in the neural system and anyone can see them under the right conditions. (Just close your eyes and gently press on them for a few moments.) These visions can be enhanced by hallucinogenic drugs, and such drugs may have been used in early shamanistic rituals, with the images then drawn by the visionary.

While psychoactive drugs and shamanistic ritual may well have played a part in the early creation of art — as they have did for the Romantic poets and the Beat poets of the ’50s and ’60s — the origin and persistence of art and its relationship to beauty go well beyond the use of such drugs. Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics includes a neuroimaging study designed to investigate the neural correlates of beauty. Ten participants were shown 300 paintings and asked to classify each of them as beautiful, ugly, or neutral. Not all agreed that a particular painting was either ugly or beautiful. The participants were then shown the paintings again using fMRI. “Beautiful” paintings elicited increased activity in the orbito-frontal cortex — involved in emotion and reward — while “ugly” paintings stimulated increased motor cortex activity, as if the brain was preparing to escape.

Ultimately, the ancient question “what is beauty,” so eloquently argued in Plato’s dialogues, may elude neuroaesthetics and remain at least partially within the realm of metaphor — and perhaps rightly so.”

— Surfdaddy Orca, Freelance Writer, Art, Neurobiology, and Mescaline: The Neuroaesthetics of Semir Zeki, hplusmagazine, April 13, 2010

See also:

The Cognitive Science of Art: Ramachandran’s 10 Principles of Art, Principles 4-10
The Cognitive Science of Art: Beauty and the Brain
☞ V.S. Ramachandran, Neurology and the Passion for Art “Why is it that great works of art seem to have a universal appeal, transcending cultural and geographic boundaries?, UCSD Faculty video Lecture
Processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure, Wikipedia
☞ R. Reber, N. Schwarz, P. Winkielman, Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver’s Processing Experience? (pdf)
Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty, TED
Jonah Lehrer, Unlocking the Mysteries of The Artistic Mind, Psychology Today, August 10, 2009.
Jonah Lehrer, The Future of Science…Is Art?
The Neuroscience of Beauty. How does the brain appreciate art?, Scientific American, Sept 27, 2011
Beauty is in the medial orbitofrontal cortex of the beholder, study finds, Lapidarium notes
Why Does Beauty Exist? Jonah Lehrer: ‘Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity’