Being Distracted Makes it Harder To See Beauty In The World

You have to literally focus on the pretty things.

Drake Baer
May 25, 2017 · 2 min read
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Image for post
Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Science has confirmed it — beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But you have to be looking.

This is the message of a fascinating study in Current Biology. NYU psychologists Denis Pelli and Aenne Brielmann asked participants to self-report the amount of pleasure they got — and beauty they experienced — while looking at beautiful images, neutral images (think Ikea catalogue), eating candy, or holding a teddy bear.

Then they repeated the experiment, but with a distractor task thrown into the mix: listening to a random series of letters, and then pressing a key when they heard a letter repeated. The distraction didn’t interfere much with pleasure, the researchers found, but it did undermine the experience of beauty. In other words, texting won’t get in the way of you enjoying a Snickers, but it’ll make it harder to savor a painting.

While more research will be needed, as Olivia Goldhill notes at Quartz, the upshot of this study is that appreciating beauty requires more attention than just experiencing pleasure — further evidence that if you want to live an aesthetically rich life, you need to allow yourself to absorb whatever it is you find beautiful, whether it’s a Monet’s Water Lilies, the second season of Master of None, or the NBA playoffs.

Concentration should help you remember these sublime scenes, too. So if you really want to bask in that sunset, you might want to keep your phone in your pocket.

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