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
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

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

    Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

    £30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Recruitment and Sales People wanted f...

    Day In a Page

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable