Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Just like how artists gasp over the world’s greatest painting and musicians lose themselves in  masterclass compositions, mathematicians find beauty in equations, according to an article on Scientific American

In a study by Semir Yeki, mathematicians were asked to rank equations on a scale from “ugly” to “beautiful”. A fortnight later, the mathematicians ranked the same equations again while their brains were being imaged by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The researchers found that the more beautiful the mathematician found the equation, the more activity was seen in his or her brain, particularly in a region in the orbitofrontal cortex.

The ortbitofrontal cortex is associated with emotion and the region that showed increased activity has been shown to correlate with emotional responses to visual and musical beauty in previous studies.

What was interesting is that the beauty of equations according to mathematicians was not subjective. Most mathematicians agreed on which were beautiful and ugly. 

This study also explored the role of culture and education in the appreciation of beauty. The researchers hypothesized that “while people with no musical or artistic training can still appreciate Beethoven’s and Michelangelo’s works, only those who understand the meaning behind certain mathematical formulas would find them beautiful.

The scientists tested their hypothesis by showing the equations to a control group of non-mathematicians and found that their brains showed a lesser emotional response. While there was one participant who showed no emotional response, some of the other participants found some equations beautiful anyway without understanding the equations, because of their shape, symmetry and other aesthetic qualities.

Some scientists are skeptical about whether beauty is too complex a concept to be captured in an fMRI scan. Others raise a question as to the different ways people perceive beauty, i.e., beauty can be experienced in both happiness and in pain and some things may not evoke feelings of happiness or sadness but may just be beautiful.

No doubt beauty is an abstract concept that is difficult to explain or understand, this finding has definitely paved a step towards discovering a neural basis for beauty.

Here’s the equation that mathematicians find most ugly – Srinivasa Ramanujan’s infinite series for 1/π:

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