The beauty of fMRI

What can a machine tell us about beauty?

A story has been going around recently: scientists find that the beauty of mathematics is the same as the beauty of paintings, life, and everything. Our nuclear imaging shows that the brain, when stimulated by this beauty, begins pumping pumping pumping the blood to the same regions regardless of its particular incarnation. Breathlessly have we been whispering to each other: “mathematical beauty is beauty.”

Beyond the love that people have for knowing that the brain is indeed doing something, “lighting up” in the way that we hope it would, we should be wondering why this story has gained traction? Why, among all the many fMRI studies out there, are we interested in this?

Perhaps we did not believe that mathematicians could find an equation truly beautiful. When I attended University, I was a mathematician who would sit in on the occasional philosophy course. During a discussion of aesthetics, there would often be times when the predominant argument among the group would be negated by considering the formal beauty of mathematics. Bringing this up would often cause blank stares; we were discussing real beauty, not your strange mathematical structures. When one cannot empathize, one does not ever truly believe.

So now we can welcome mathematicians to the fold. You see, we have the same place in our brains where sunsets and formulae cause the chemical reactions that we call beauty! We are the same, who would have thought? We have been able to replace empathy with scientific truth, and untold multitudes of college philosophy majors will now have another item to pull from their bag of quips.

But what we know is not really what we know. Our brain works through a series of chemical messaging systems: payloads of neurotransmitters cross synapses, ions whizz through directly-connected gap junctions, molecular cascades tumble through cells. And on a gross level we have large chunks of grubby grey matter whose fluctuating electrical potentials draw in blood when we see beauty. Yet the phenomenon of beauty is not solely based on the level of blood flow in our brains; rather, it is the precise matrix of neurons and proteins and peptides that are in flux at the right moment that creates our emergent feelings of aesthetics. The beauty of a sunset is not the beauty of literature is not the beauty of an equation, despite what our burbling blood whispers to the thrumming MRI machines.

Upon consideration, we no longer have truth! We have only the fact that, broadly speaking, the words we use to describe how we feel are in concordance with the manner in which our brain is acting. We have nothing.

But the scientists have something. Those who want to investigate beauty can go into greater depth, can understand the function of those regions, can visualize and tinker with the cascades and fluctuations. It is easy to pretend that common sense has anything to all to do with biology, but the messy combinatorics of our cellular membranes defy that simplification. There is a saying that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, though it may be more accurate to quote, “nothing in biology makes sense.” So to confirm our intuitions about reality is something quite profound.

Then we can begin to ask crazy questions such as: is anything beautiful to a rat? What happens when those regions “light up” for them? For they have the same neural structures that we do. If we run into those neural rooms and flip the switches, turning lights on and off, how do things change? Perhaps we will understand if we are fundamentally distinct from the meerkat or orangutan — or more mundanely identical.

After all, why not? Why is a Homo sapiens sapiens become awestruck by a sunset or contented by a flowering field any less preposterous than a common house cat doing the same? We can exclude the pleasure of observing a gentle stream from baser animals if we wish, and demand that any animal we investigate must be in readiness for a passing meal or flight from a more vicious being. Yet we watch animals in play with others all the time and we have no desire to withhold fun from their mental world: let us not do the same with beauty.

Imagining the beauty of a bat — to pick a historically difficult animal — illustrates the difficulty. It is unimaginable that we could understand what an animal able send out sonar pulses and translate that into vivid shapes and motion. That live in three dimensions rather than our planar two. It need not be so hard: unsighted humans can learn a crude form of echolocation; every wild child remembers living in the third dimension when crawling through local canopies.

Our reality and animal reality is, in truth, isometric. And science as a whole is circular in its research planning: from gross human structures down to particular animal structures back up to human knowledge about humans. Superficialities become specificities, so long as you can take your knowledge one driblet at a time.

Photo from Kevin Dooley, used in accordance with the Creative Commons license