Elegant Mathematical Formulas Activate the Same Brain Region As Music And Art

Beauty comes in many different guises, including numbers and symbols

Photo: Akash Kataruka

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder, and neurobiology, it turns out, supports this idiom. While some people might be moved by the beauty of an artistic or musical work, others experience the same ecstasy when gazing upon an elegant set of mathematical equations, new research finds. And, all these experiences activate the same part of the brain.

Mathematicians have long described having "an emotional experience" when working with a particularly refined set of equations, authors of the new study told Medical Daily. But no one knew if they were having the same neurobiological experiences as people describing similar emotional reactions to what we generally describe as "art." The research team recruited 15 mathematicians to look at 60 different equations while having their brains scanned in an fMRI. While the fMRI recorded the math experts' neurological reactions, the volunteers told the researchers whether they found each equation to be beautiful, ugly or something in between. 

The more beautiful the mathematicians found the equations to be, Medical Daily reports, the more activity registered in their medial orbitofrontal cortex, the area of the brain that researchers normally associate with emotional, beautiful experiences.

What prompts our brains to see beauty, in other words, is individualized for each of us, and those individualized experience seem to be connected, in some way, to our knoweldge. But the experience of beauty cuts across disciplines. Not everyone will find mathematical equations beautiful, but, if they do, they're having the same experience as a person who looks at a painting and sees beauty there. Teasing out why certain types of work trigger this response in certain people, though—whether it's the influence of environment, experience, natural disposition or understanding—will no doubt require some beautiful formulas of its own.

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