Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but for much of the history of philosophy, there has been an intellectual component to the idea of the beautiful, as well. Now, a new study provides proof that you need to be smart to appreciate beauty.
To experience something as beautiful is, after all, to “contemplate its beauty,” and thus, while the bare senses of sight and touch and so on are certainly involved in the process, thinking and reasoning have long been assumed to be part of the beauty experience, too.
Further, the fact that we even care about beauty is telling. In fact, philosophers have described the desire for beauty to be a distinctly human trait. And since humans are also said to be thinking creatures par excellence —we have sensing capabilities like other creatures, so the theory goes, but unlike plants and (most) other animals we also have the higher power of abstract thought— the experiencing of beauty, by association, must also be a higher, thinking creature’s type of activity.
No one better expressed this view than 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose work on aesthetics painted a picture of the person experiencing the beautiful as being involved in not merely a sensing-type activity but also an act of thought — a judgment, in fact, that amounts to the claim, “This thing is beautiful.”
But is Kant right about this? Is experiencing beauty really a thinking-type activity? Just as interesting, how would we ever prove such a philosophical position to be either right or wrong?
Skip ahead to the present day where a pair of researchers from New York University have designed a psychological experiment which does just that: it shows Kant’s intuition to be correct.
Study participants were shown a range of images, some of which were attractive and nice to look at and some plain, and they were also given pleasure-inducing experiences (licking a lollipop and touching a cuddly teddy bear). Participants were then asked, During this trial, did you get the feeling of beauty from the object? and told to rate their experience on a beauty scale.
Next came the novel part: some of the participants were given the additional task of playing a simple yet concentration-requiring memory game at the same time as they made their beauty ratings.
The results showed that people’s ratings of things as beautiful went down when they were half-preoccupied with the memory game and yet the ratings of the non-beautiful, plain things were not similarly affected. In a nutshell, the experiment showed that making the call that something is beautiful takes cognitive effort — it’s a thinking activity.
“The experience of beauty is a form of pleasure,” explains New York University’s Denis Pelli, a professor of psychology and neural science and the study’s senior author, in a press release. “To get it, we must think.”
Along with confirming Ksnt to be right, however, the researchers also found him to be mistaken on another claim. As Kant held to the idea of the “higher” use of reason as being distinct from the “lower” work of the senses, he was found to proclaim that pleasures of the purely sensual kind — eating a nice meal, for example — could not be deemed beautiful. Yet, when asked to rate their experiences involving the lollipop and teddy bear, some study participants gave these experiences top marks, indicating that they found them to be, in their own way, beautiful.
The research is published in the journal Current Biology.