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

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.

Read more: What is it that makes mathematics beautiful? A mathematician's perspective

Euler's identity is expressed as e^{{i\pi }}+1=0 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 (a^{2}+b^{2}=c^{2}\!\,) 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 and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

    Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high