People who appreciate the beauty of mathematics activate the same part of their brain when they look at aesthetically pleasing formula as others do while cherishing art or music, scientists say.
The findings suggest that there is a neurobiological basis to beauty, researchers said.
Mathematicians often describe mathematical formulae in emotive terms and the experience of mathematical beauty has often been compared by them to the experience of beauty derived from the greatest art.
Researchers from the University College London (UCL) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to image the brain activity of 15 mathematicians when they viewed mathematical formulae that they had previously rated as beautiful, neutral or ugly.
The results showed that the experience of mathematical beauty correlates with activity in the same part of the emotional brain – namely the medial orbito-frontal cortex – as the experience of beauty derived from art or music.
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In the study, each subject was given 60 mathematical formulae to review at leisure and rate on a scale of -5 (ugly) to +5 (beautiful) according to how beautiful they experienced them to be.
Two weeks later they were asked to re-rate them while in an fMRI scanner.
The formulae most consistently rated as beautiful (both before and during the scans) were Leonhard Euler’s identity, the Pythagorean identity and the Cauchy-Riemann equations.
Leonhard Euler’s identity links five fundamental mathematical constants with three basic arithmetic operations each occurring once and the beauty of this equation has been likened to that of the soliloquy in Hamlet.
Mathematicians judged Srinivasa Ramanujan’s infinite series and Riemann’s functional equation as the ugliest.
“We have found that activity in the brain is strongly related to how intense people declare their experience of beauty to – even in this example where the source of beauty is extremely abstract. This answers a critical question in the study of aesthetics, namely whether aesthetic experiences can be quantified,” Professor Semir Zeki, lead author of the paper from the Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology at UCL, said.
“We have found that, as with the experience of visual or musical beauty, the activity in the brain is strongly related to how intense people declare their experience of beauty to be- even in this example where the source of beauty is extremely abstract,” Zeki added.
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.