What is Beauty?

You have probably heard that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. I would argue that there is more to this than what meet the eye.  What meets your tongue could be consider beauty – why should beauty be restricted to those who can see? It is an overall experience you get when you perceive something you feel comfortable with. It might be a smell, taste, touch, sound or a view. It could obviously be a combination of them as well. Why do we perceive some sensations as beautiful and not others? How can we distinguish the feeling of experiencing something beautiful with the feeling of being attracted to, or enjoying something for that matter? Let me tell you about my thoughts on one type of experience which I feel is as close as it gets to what we think of when we hear the word beautiful.

When the physical fields around us are projected on our sensory organs, electro chemical signal are sent to the brain. With other words, only a small part of the information carried in the field reaches us. The brain has evolved to only take in the information that we can use to get a survival advantage. However, we need to but that information in to content in order for it to mean anything. We need to map the information in to something you have experienced before. One can say that the brain creates a mental model of reality from memory and whatever we perceive at the moment has to be fitted in to that model.

Beauty in my view is the experience we get if the newly required information fits well with our mental model. So what is beautiful for you depends on your earlier experiences and on how you create your mental model. To make a mental model of reality the brain uses as little energy as possible, so it will not generate an exact representation of what’s out there. It will rather take in the most important features and generate the spaces in between. If for example you look at a face which is roughly mirror symmetric, the brain will use information from the right side of the face to fill some features on the left side. The more symmetric your experience is, the less information is needed to recreate that experience resulting in less energy usage in the brain.

So, the brain uses symmetry when it creates its mental model of the world. This means that symmetric things will fit better in to that mental model, which is why we perceive symmetric experiences as more beautiful. The more we experience the same thing the more accurate our mental model of that thing will become. This is why young people find beauty in people that are similar to their parents. Their mental model for faces is mostly made up of these faces. We also find beauty in songs that are rhythmical. We expect the beat of a song to continue with the same pace. When the beat then fits that model it feels nice. Wine or bear might not taste special in the beginning, but eventually we will build up a mental model of those drinks. When we get a drink that matches that model it is pleasurable. We might on the other hand be really sensitive to small deviations, now when our model is so precise.

Humans are driven by emotions. It gives us direct feedback which in a group would improve cooperation in many cases. The feeling of perceiving beauty is this positive feedback for creating accurate mental models which clearly must be preferable. But as with everything, there is always a tradeoff between accuracy and effort. Evolution has once again driven us as a species to that perfect balance. If only we could learn from Mother Nature and push our society towards some perfect balance!


6 thoughts on “What is Beauty?

  1. Great post! I like how you write, that you challenge our core definition of beaty and I get the feeling you have a lot of underlying knowledge. A few thoughts that I have – if we perceive beauty from our mental models, how are they created in the first place? Can you see a specific shift in age where we go from “developing” mental models vs more reaffirming them? Is there something we can do to continue to challenge ourselves and how we view the world and would that shift our view of beauty ie that it doesn’t need to affirm our mental models?


    1. Hi Dick!

      Great comment!

      As you will notice, most of the time I will write to challenge the meaning of words we use.

      Concerning you question. Beuty is the word we ascribe to something that we think is beautiful. The ascociated positive experience, to feel that something is beautiful, has evolved to help us to make better mental models and perhaps to make us less willing to change once we settle. Changes is good at the beginning when we are searching for a partner or looking for a new home. However, perceiving the same thing many times makes us comfortable with that environment – we better stick to what works.

      As you say, we have the feeling that infants experience beauty, for instance when the see their mother is smiling or hear her singing. Is this the same fundamental experience we are talking about? I don’t know, I would believe that we learn very fast in the beginning. Our mental models at that age forms from simple patterns and raw experiential data.
      The models are week and changeable, our moods are correspondingly variable. As we grow older the models get stronger and we get more reluctant to change in many aspects.

      We might want to raise our kids in a diverse environment so that they don’t get stuck in any narrow models. With a broad model we can more easily map our experiences to that model. The down side could be that we become less willing to settle with what we have.

      In the end we should aim to experience everything as beautiful, but to do that we need far more knowledge. The more we know the more there are for us to connect our experiences to. It is clearly more beautiful to view a painting from someone we know a lot about. Similarly, watching a sport on tv is more pleasing if we know the rules.

      There is more to it I am sure, but this might give you something to think about!


  2. Intressant och vackert, men jag störde mig naturligtvis lite på att du skriver att det ÄR si och så (snarare än att det är så du ser det) och sen inte har några referenser 🙂 i praktiken spelar det ju ingen större roll, men i dessa tider av “alternativa fakta” känns det viktigare än någonsin att skilja på fakta och åsikter/känslor.


    1. Thank you Katarina!

      Good remark, the blog is in english though so I hope you don’t mind me recapping . The comment was that it is important to separate facts from opinions which I have not done properly. Sorry for that, if I do claim something for a fact from now on I will back them up with reliable sources that support those facts.
      It’s really important these days when ignorance is spreading like a decease all over the world.

      Read what I have to say with scepticism, I am not telling the truth. What I aim for is to tell you about my ideas and try to support them with examples that you would be able to relate to.

      Remember if, you don’t agree, please challenge my ideas with counter examples. This is how we all learn!


  3. Happy to read your thoughts on this timeless topic!

    I interpret your description of the use of the word as mainly focused on instant/first-time encounters (with people/things). As you write, “Beauty in my view is the experience we get if the newly required information fits well with our mental model” and since “the brain uses symmetry when it creates its mental model of the world” /…/ “the more symmetric your experience is, the less information is needed to recreate that experience resulting in less energy usage in the brain”. Hence, symmetry and ‘recognizability’ are the dominant features that creates an experience of instant beauty in the beholder.

    To this I’d like to add the thought of repeated encounter or longer exposure to the object (person/thing/phenomenon) in view. You are touching upon the thought that continuous experience of, for example a drink, makes us “sensitive to small deviations, now when our model is so precise” and I want to stretch this a bit further and claim that there seem to be a crucial point -in the time of our experience -where the thing we at first conceived as strikingly beautiful turns dull, IF it doesn’t reveal some kind of variance, something unexpected, something new.

    While I am fascinated by how amazing our brain is wired I can’t help but thinking that it is a bit of a shame that we are functioning in this way, as you write “perceiving the same thing many times makes us comfortable with that environment – we better stick to what works”, and we seem to be better at accepting variance in an object once we already are comfortable with the object, rather than the other way around.

    Anyway, thank you for triggering a moment of reflection!

    – Malin


  4. Thank you for your comment Malin!

    You say that we “seem to be better at accepting variance in an object once we already are comfortable with the object”. It might be that we do accept variance in an object if there are other features of that object that remain intact. Once we “get to know” the object in depth we might still consider that object beautiful since, in our view, only the “tip of the iceberg” has changed. A shallow view might result in that dullness you are talking about.

    It may also be that repeated exposure, if to narrow, will result in a more fastidious view of beauty. As you can read in my response to Dick, maybe we should expose ourselves to a broader set of experience in order to expand our view of beauty. But as with most things, we need the balance. The balance of perceiving some things repeatedly but with an overall broad experience base. In hope of getting some peaks in the experience from the former while keeping, with the help of the later, an overall positive experience from the general beauty that is all around us.

    What do you think?


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