Biology, Brains and Beauty: How Do They (and We) Relate?
A "Scientifico-Philosophico-Humanistic" Inquiry

One neurobiologist's response to discussions of the 2004 Symposium on Beauty . . .

given by Paul Grobstein
for the Symposium on Beauty
Bryn Mawr College Center for Science in Society
30 March 2004

Sharon's interpretation is down this column.

The Elephant Presumption: there is a there there

Paul is introducing with some subtleness the notion that beauty is an optical illlusion: not "really" there.

Whever 'there' is . . . .

"Beauty" is that which causes these (and other) particular stories in particular people
This is the origin of the (infamous) Beauty Survey

Getting Some Observations/Data


As we saw, there was a diversity of responses to the survey, yet also duplication among responses.


From this Paul leads us into his favorite topic: THE BRAIN. Hence, "out there" is physically external to our bodies and "in there" is within us, specifically the brain.


He suggests if many different external "triggers" elicit similar beauty responses, the similarity must be within ourselves since the external triggers may differ.


Are you "happier not thinking about it?"

  • Different people differ in their attribution of "beauty" to particular "things out there".
  • The differing attributions are not totally random. To differing degrees particular different "things out there" evoke in different groups of people similar attributions of "beauty".
  • "Beauty" must have to do with an interaction between "things out there" and "things in here". And "things in here" must have some similarities as well as some differences among individuals.
  • There are no obvious commonalities among the "things out there" to which either individuals or groups attribute "beauty".
  • "Beauty" overlaps with, but can usually be distinguished from other attributions, both among individuals and within individuals.
  • If there is a there there, "beauty" must be a single something "in here" that can be produced by different "things out there".
  • People in general have great difficulty in accounting for their personal attributions of "beauty", but are in general quite comfortable (even happier?) making them without "thinking about it".
  • "Beauty" must have to do with something "in here" other than "thinking".


Relevance of the brain?

 He proposes: Thinking is not typically part of beauty experience . . .

as many of you have said or written, beauty is usually associated with feeling emotion.

Beauty is "created" of the brain --not too different from how color is "created".

But very different in complexity of brain events that create it.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it it does NOT produce a "sound".

  • "Beauty", like "sound" or "color" is a creation of the brain


"localized" ??? Not meaning, a specific location in brain.


Rather (I think) Paul intended to emphasize that the beauty experience is from within not from without.


Paul's brain: version 1




another version

"Beauty" can be "localized" within the brain

 These first 2 points made me consider (again) what, exactly, is the goal of this course? Is it to reveal the information of the "analysis" that leads to the beauty experience?

(not so for me, I believe)







In another discussion forum, there was a discussion about whether visual vs olefactory stimulus into our"frog brain" (i.e., lower brain) was the more complex process. . . .

  • "Beauty" is the result of an unconscious analysis and is reported to the I-function (conscious) as the resultant of that analysis without any information about how the analysis was carried out.

  • The only way to determine how the analysis is done for any given brain is to observe the outcomes of the analysis for a series of inputs (in others and/or in oneself).

  • The analysis itself can reasonably be expected to be somewhat the same and somewhat different in different brains, and to reflect genetic information as well as individual experiences, cultural factors, and activities of the I-function. It is likely not to be predictable from any of those factors operating alone, and hence to be "surprising" to the individual doing the analysis (more so in the case of oneself than of others). Hence data collection (see above) is worthwhile for at least two reasons (personal and social/cultural)

  • Some hints for further neurobiological inquiry:
    • Visual and auditory inputs access the esthetics processor more readily than do somatosensory and gustatory inputs?
    • There may be population differences in the esthetics processor between different groups of humans as well as in the relation of the esthetics processor to other boxes.
 From the brain discussion, Paul went on to address how beauty relates to the bigger issues, offerign his views of the problems and his solutions.

Social/political and personal considerations ...

"Is the "real problem" that beauty is exclusive, that whoever "has" it (I'm thinking now of beautiful women) has the power? And/or that whoever gets to define it (I'm thinking now of the male gaze) exercises power?" ... Forum
 "unlikely to be abolishable" . . . because the need to see beauty is inherent in us?

From biology/neurobiology (leaving sex/gender aside for the moment)

The category of "beauty" is unlikely to be abolishable without either
1) universal very-difficult-perhaps-impossible brain surgery or
2) universal very-difficult-perhaps-impossible psychotherapy

Even if one could, one would probably not be wise to abolish the category since "beauty" as a discriminative category is a resultant of evolution and likely to have some value.

Paul quotes me for one example of "why" beauty has a purpose.


As a second example, he quotes from Ted Chiang's "Liking What You See.."

. . . beauty is misused . . .

"An interest in beauty is generative" (Burgmayer)

"This doesn't mean I agree with my parents' having me grow up with calli. I still think they were wrong; they thought getting rid of beauty would help make a utopia, and I don't believe that at all. Beauty isn't the problem, it is how some people are misusing it that's the problem ... I don't know, maybe this wasn't a problem back in my parents' day. But its something we have to deal with now." .... "Liking What You See: A Documentary" in Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

For the same reasons, efforts to try and get people to feel/believe that "everything is beautiful" are both undesirable and likely to fail.


 Beauty . . . or appearance?




"...being beautiful" . . .

or appearing beautiful?


And, do appearances gain (undue) importance and power when the label "beauty" is co-opted?


(I think) there's a BIG difference, and it's not hard to discriminate.






"Olympia", Edouard Manet

(my addition)





An alternative approach (accepting that the "real problem" IS related to human sex/gender/power) ... with appreciation for feminism (and, nonethless, trepidation)

Starting position (from neurobiology): "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am"

And from feminism: women in the past needed "men's gaze" to achieve influence, found it easiest to do so by being beautiful, were subject to exploitation/opression for that reason

What do you think about this?

Are "women much more concerned about beauty than men, who consider beauty one of a significant number of different desirable attributes" ???

Liz: "we are addicted to beauty".

Are we????

Or are we addicted to reacting to appearances without risking a deeper "look"— a look at one's "soul". . .

Currently (this symposium, but with head protected):

Women are much more concerned about "beauty" than men, who consider beauty one of a significant number of different desirable attributes. This difference is certainly abetted by culture but may well be to some extent both desirable and ineradicable.


He didn't.

(survive, that is)

". . .among equally significant ones"???

Suggestion (if I survive this far): women might be better off if they developed the ability to treat "beauty" more as (viva la difference) one desirable attribute among many equally significant ones, in themselves, in others, and in the things they/others create.

Durer "Adam and Eve"
> > > > >


"We are the artists of the beauty around us. "

Maybe if we can all learn to enjoy the richness of diversity, we can all keep and enjoy "beauty" too ... each in our own way

Additional Threads (from this symposium) that segue into your assignment for Thursday . . . .

Koggel -

"Beauty" has substantial political/social and personal significance ... and some relation to "power"

Lord -

The power, personal, and political/social significance of "beauty" is not invariant. It differs for different people, at different times in history, and at different times in individual lives.

Levine -

"Beauty" relates to the "unconscious" ... and to mystery/tension?

Albano -

One's sense of what is beautiful, and one's sense of its significance, can be affected by thinking and by experience/culture

Burgmayer -

Beauty relates to a creative force