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!