A Mind for Beauty
Beauty is something we all enjoy. Behind my home is a ridge of hills that I frequently climb in the morning to see the beauty of the sunrise. If I walk in a different direction in the evening, I can enjoy the colors of the sunset. As I take my hikes, I occasionally see wild animals—coyotes, rabbits, donkeys, birds of various kinds. Although I have visited the sites many times and enjoyed the beauty of the skies, I have never seen any of the wild animals pay any attention to the beauty that has attracted my attention. What is it that makes me see beauty, and why is my response so different from that of the animals around me?
Color is one aspect that contributes to our appreciation of beauty. The colors of sunrise and sunset attract our attention to the skies at those particular moments in time. Another example is the rainbow, with its spectrum of color that elicits our attention and admiration. Other examples include our choices of clothing, home décor, automobiles, works of art, and many natural objects such as birds and butterflies. The ability to see and distinguish colors requires a complex visual system, working in conjunction with the occipital lobe of the brain.1 Most vertebrates and many invertebrates are able to distinguish colors, and some have enlarged optical lobes that enable impressive visual abilities. Many species rely on color patterns to identify their own species. Yet with the exception of humans, none of these species is known to appreciate color patterns for their beauty.
Form is another aspect of beauty. For example, we tend to appreciate the form of objects that have symmetry. Bilateral symmetry is a part of beauty that is so familiar we may not think about it until we encounter an example that has been damaged. We may admire a horse as it gallops freely across a meadow, but if that same horse has a deformed leg or other damage to its symmetry, we immediately notice the defect.
Other forms of symmetry include radial symmetry and spiral symmetry. These forms also attract our admiration. Radial symmetry occurs when a form has a central axis around which the parts are arranged so that it can be divided into two equal halves in more than one plane. Many flowers have radial symmetry, including roses, daisies, and lilies. Many cnidarians— hydra, jellyfish, sea anemone, and coral—are radially symmetrical. And echinoderms—starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers—typically have five-fold radial symmetry.
Spiral symmetry occurs when the parts are arranged regularly in a rotational pattern around a central axis. If the spiral coils on a plane, the result is planar spiral symmetry, such as is seen in the shell of the chambered nautilus or the fiddleneck pattern of a young fern. If the spiral coils around the central axis, the result is vertical spiral symmetry such as in top shells, augers, and many other gastropod shells. Spiral symmetry is also seen in pine cones and, in a related pattern, the famous helix of DNA. Such symmetry attracts our attention and contributes to our perception of beauty.
Identification of form is a type of pattern recognition that is vital to most metazoan animals— insects, crustaceans, and arachnids. It functions in finding food, identifying potential predators or mates, orientation of motility, identification of location, etc. Thus, all visually oriented multicellular organisms must have brains that facilitate pattern recognition. In mammals, this is accomplished in the cortex.2 Birds do not have a brain cortex but recognize patterns in an area of the brain known as the dorsal ventricular ridge. Despite the fact that pattern recognition is a vital and widespread ability among many types of animals, there is no evidence that animals enjoy beauty for its own sake.
A third aspect of beauty is proportion. For many people, there is beauty in mathematically regular shapes and proportions.3 The so-called Golden Ratio is a well-known example of the beauty of proportion. The Golden Ratio is related to the Fibonacci Series, a mathematical sequence in which each number is equal to the sum of the preceding two numbers, beginning with 0 and 1. Dividing a Fibonacci number by its preceding number gives a ratio that approaches 1.618 as the numbers get larger. It is widely recognized that a rectangle in which the proportion of the width to the height is about 1.618 is visually pleasing, which is why it is called the Golden Rectangle. Many examples have been reported in art, architecture, and nature, although there is some controversy over some of the claims that have been made.
The appreciation of visual beauty is a pleasurable experience that involves a complex series of connections in the human brain. These connections include the default network, which studies have linked to the sensation of pleasure when viewing objects.4 The prefrontal cortex is a core part of the default network and is present in most, if not all, mammals. Similar structures appear to be present in birds. Apes have a prefrontal cortex that appears very similar to ours,5 except that the human cortex seems to have space for many more connections. It seems that many animals have brains that are generally similar to the human brain but without the neural connections needed for appreciation of beauty.
Beauty is a sense of admiration and pleasure that requires a complex brain with particular connections that seem to be possessed only by humans. Why should humans be so unique in this? The best answer I have seen is that humans were created in the image of a Creator who loves beauty, and that our brains were designed to be able to share the appreciation of beauty with our Creator.
Adapted by permission from Design and Catastrophe: 51 Scientists Explore Evidence in Nature, James Gibson, Ronny Nalin, and Humberto M. Rasi, eds. Copyright 2021 by Andrews University Press, http://www.universitypress.andrews.edu.