Experiencing beauty requires thought, neuroscientists have found in a study that confirms a claim by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western philosophy.
“The experience of beauty is a form of pleasure. To get it, we must think,” said senior author Denis Pelli, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University.
“From Homer’s Iliad to today’s $500-billion cosmetics industry, beauty always matters. Our study reveals what makes beauty special,” said lead author Aenne Brielmann, a Ph.D. student at New York University.
The team tested twin claims by Kant: in his 1764 work Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, and later in Critique of Pure Judgment, he posited that experiencing beauty requires thought, but that sensuous pleasure can be enjoyed without thought and cannot be beautiful.
The authors examined whether experiencing beauty requires thought and sensuous pleasure does not.
They conducted a series of experiments in which the study’s participants selected images from the Internet that they found ‘movingly beautiful.’
Participants were shown the images they selected as well as images that were independently evaluated as ‘beautiful’ or ‘plain.’
To measure how we process sensuous pleasures, participants tasted fruit-flavored candy or touched teddy bears with various wool textures.
For each object, participants reported how much pleasure and beauty they felt.
In one half of the experiment, the same participants had to simultaneously complete a task.
They listened to a sequence of letters and pressed a button every time the letter was the same as the one two letters back.
This distracted the participants from thinking about the image, candy, or teddy bear while experiencing them.
Adding the distraction reduced the feelings of pleasure and beauty in viewing the beautiful images, but hardly affected that from non-beautiful things.
These results support Kant’s claim that beauty requires thought.
The scientists were surprised, however, to discover that strong pleasure is always beautiful.
A third of participants got very strong pleasure from the candy and teddy bear, and called these sensuous pleasures ‘beautiful.’
This additional finding disproves Kant’s claim that sensuous pleasures cannot be beautiful.
So, if you seek maximum pleasure, these results recommend undistracted beauty wherever you find it, even in candy.
Details of the research were published online today in the journal Current Biology.
Aenne A. Brielmann Denis G. Pelli. Beauty Requires Thought. Current Biology, published online May 11, 2017; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.04.018