Study shows that the brain reacts to beautiful mathematics in the same way as great art
Formulas were also ranked by their beauty, with the greatest compared to a soliloquy by Hamlet
Thursday 13 February 2014
The brain responds to mathematical beauty in the same way that it does to music and art, according to new research conducted by a team from University College London.
After analysing the reactions of 15 mathematicians to formulae through brain imaging, researchers found that the brain reacts similarly to seeing a beautiful equation as it does to magnificent art or music.
“When one looks at a formula rated as beautiful it activates the emotional brain - the medial orbito-frontal cortex - like looking at a great painting or listening to a piece of music,” said Professor Semir Zeki, lead author of the paper.
Professor Zeki, from the Wellcome Laboratory of Neuriobiology at UCL, added: “To many of us mathematical formulae appear dry and inaccessible but to a mathematician an equation can embody the quintescence of beauty."
One mathematician reported feeling “a shiver of appreciation” when seeing a beautiful equation. Another said that viewing an equation was similar to “hearing a beautiful piece of music, or seeing a particularly appealing painting”.
As part of the study, the mathematicians also ranked 60 different formulae as either ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, or ‘indifferent’. According to this ranking the most beautiful formula is Euler’s identity, which was deemed so aesthetically pleasing that it was compared to one of Hamlet's soliloquies.
Euler's identity is expressed as and is notable for combining the fields of geometry and algebra by using five funadmental mathmatical constants and three of the basic arithmetic operations. The latter trio are addition, multiplication and exponation, and the former quintet are e and π (both are transcendental numbers), i (the 'imaginary number), 0 and 1.
And for non-mathematicians hoping for a more accessible example, Pythagoras' theorem was also ranked highly. This formula () is used to work out the sides of a right-angled triangle and is often expressed as the statement 'the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides'.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell declared that the discipline was "capable of an artistic excellence as great as that of any music, perhaps greater":
"[Mathematics] gives in absolute perfection that combination, characteristic of great art, of godlike freedom, with the sense of inevitable destiny; because, in fact, it constructs an ideal world where everything is perfect but true," wrote Russel in his 1967 autobiography.
This study appears in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
Life & Style blogs
When did the Eiffel Tower open to the public? Six things you didn't know about iconic structure
Google Maps Pacman: company offers chance to play arcade classic on streets around the world
Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
American Apparel gets another ad banned by advertising watchdog for sexualising children
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts
- 3 Martha Stewart accuses Snoop Dogg of 'smoking for four hours' during Justin Bieber Roast
- 4 Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
- 5 April Fools' Day 2015: The best hoax news stories from around the internet
iJobs Gadgets & Tech
£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has 30 years of ex...
£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing cloud based I...
£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Front End Web Developer is re...
£22500 - £30000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking for experie...