Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Beauty is all about patterns

In a very interesting article for wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer suggests that our feelings of beauty are:
“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.”
Salvador Dali, the persistence of time.
He then thinks this peculiar variant of curiosity is hijacked by art. Experiencing beautiful art we get sucked in to the undulating tones of a Beethoven symphony or into Mona Lisa's smile. Great works seems to always imply something, to set up information in patterns that then keeps us waiting for their conclusion. The final line of a Bukowski poem becomes immensely beautiful since it has been so cleverly built up. The feeling of beauty tells us there is a pattern here, and that we have a chance of figuring it out.
“Put another way,” Lehrer says, “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.
Great art seems to contain promises of great patterns. The beginning of a symphony sets up a pattern and then the rest, more or less, is a tantalizing “flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order.” 

He quotes some interesting studies that suggests a particular area of the brain, specifically in the medial orbital-frontal cortex involved in our experience of beauty, regardless of whether its source is music, painting, weaving, reading or otherwise.
This  is one of the least understood parts of the brain. But what we do know is that it’s instrumental in sensory integration, it regulates how powerful our emotional responses are to stimuli, its also key in decision-making and expectation. In particular, the mOFC is thought to regulate planning behavior associated with sensitivity to reward and punishment. I guess it is then not so unexpected that our experience of beauty resides in this area already known as an important part of our pleasure spectrum.
Auguste Rodin, the Kiss.
“…That brain area has consistently been implicated in the recognition of delightful things, from the taste of an expensive wine to the luxurious touch of cashmere,” explains Lehrer.
As we begin to discover how our experience of beauty originates in the brain we can perhaps answer the philosophical question of what the common quality of Bach, Rodin, Dali, and ancient cave paintings all have in common.
The scientist behind the experiment which localized the beauty responses in the mOFC, “Ishizu and Zeki think that the “peculiar quality” lies not in works of art themselves (pieces of music included), but in the brains of their beholders.”
The objects of art are not so much beautiful in themselves as suggestive of patterns and emotions that stimulates a particular part of the brain. The work of art can in this sense be seen as a trigger for feelings of beauty. And a skilled artist might be said to have an understanding of how to form an object, music or perhaps any type of performance into an experience which triggers beauty trough setting up a pattern and holding off on its completion. Something a little mysterious that cries out to be understood and also gives off the hopeful feeling that you will be able to grasp it.
From the Chauvet caves in France, artist unknown...
In exploring aspects of life as diverse as hallucinatory drugs, meditation, dancing to repetitive music, partaking of religious ceremonies, and studying evolution many of us have had the sense that life and everything is riddled with patterns. I certainly have. Life itself, its origin and development is about order and patterns in seeming chaos. Most early Origin myths are about order from chaos. In fact our minds were made to create meaning from chaos. It is part of what makes us human.
So if beauty is akin to curiosity what exactly is curiosity?
“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).”
When there is a gap between what we know and what we want to know we get something like a mental itch and desire to seek knowledge to bridge this gap. This seems to be a fundamental aspect of curiosity.
“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.”
So the thing that keeps us interested is incompleteness, rather than perfection. A stray hair on a Japanese Zen painting, a gold tooth in a carny’s crooked smile makes something beautiful and interesting.
Researchers in Montreal discovered, through the use of fMRI machines and PET scans that our experience of beauty whilst listening to music is highest fifteen seconds before the climax. As themes, and threads are coming together and the promise of completion looms our experience of beauty is the strongest. We peak emotionally just before the climax.
“It is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s beauty… ‘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.”
Beauty urges us to pay attention to keep looking. It hints at the mysterious, but also gives us hope that understanding is within grasp. It encourages us with its imperfections to want to know more, we want to know how it ends.
“We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t know what. That’s why we call it beautiful.”


Perhaps this article can Illuminate aspects of the fundamental structure in our perception of beauty and through it help elevating Showmen’s creation’s as they journey along the Way of the Showman.

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