Facts So Romantic

Why Beauty Is Not Universal

We’re all human—so despite the vagaries of cultural context, might there exist a universal beauty that overrides the where and when? Might there be unchanging features of human nature that condition our creative choices, a timeless melody that guides the improvisations of the everyday? There has been a perpetual quest for such universals, because of their value as a North Star that could guide our creative choices.

One oft-cited candidate for universal beauty is visual symmetry. Consider the geometric patterns of Persian carpets and the ceilings of the Alhambra Palace in Spain, created in different places and historic periods.

Persian carpetKsenia Palimski / Dreamstime.com
Ceiling of the Alhambra.Jebulon

But the relationship between beauty and symmetry is not an absolute. The Rococo art that was popular in Europe in the 18th century was rarely symmetrical, and Zen gardens are prized for their lack of symmetry.

“The Triumph of Venus,” by Francis Boucher (1740).
Ryoan-ji (late 15th century) in Kyoto, Japan.Cquest / Wikicommons

So perhaps one should look elsewhere for evidence of universal beauty. In 1973, the psychologist Gerda Smets ran experiments using electrodes on the scalp (known as electroencephalography, or EEG) to record the level of brain activity produced by exposure to different patterns. She noted that the brain shows the largest response to patterns with about a 20 percent level of complexity.

A set of stimuli from Gerda Smets’ tests of visual complexity. The second row from the top shows approximately a 20 percent level of complexity.

Newborns will stare for longer at patterns with about 20 percent complexity than they will at others. The biologist E.O. Wilson suggested that this preference might give rise to a biologically-imposed universal beauty in human art:

It may be a coincidence (although I think not) that about the same degree of complexity is shared by a great deal of the art in friezes, grillwork, colophons, logographs, and flag designs…The same level of complexity characterizes part of what is considered attractive in primitive art and modern art and design.

But is Wilson right? Arousal may be a starting point for aesthetics, but it’s not the whole story. We live in societies that chronically strive to surprise and inspire each other. Once 20 percent complexity becomes too much of a habit, it loses its shine, and humans reach out for other dimensions of novelty.

Consider two abstract canvases painted within a few years of each other by Wassily Kandinsky and his Russian compatriot Kazimir Malevich. The chaotic clash of colors in Kandinsky’s “Composition VII” (1913) has high complexity whereas Malevich’s preternaturally calm “White on White” (1918) has the visual consistency of a snow-covered landscape. Even with shared biological constraints (and working in the same cultural context at virtually the same time), Kandinsky and Malevich produced radically different art.

“Composition VII,” by Vassily Kandinsky (1913).
“White on White,” by Kasimir Malevich (1918).

So visual art is not doomed to follow any prescriptions. In fact, once Smets concluded her experiments, she asked participants which images they preferred. There she found no consensus. A larger brain response to 20 percent complexity did not predict anything about her subjects’ aesthetic preferences, which were distributed across the spectrum. When it comes to judging visual beauty, there are no hard-and-fast biological rules.

In fact, the environment we live in can change the way we see.  In the Müller-Lyer illusion (below), segment a is perceived as shorter than segment b, even though they are exactly the same length. For many years, scientists assumed this was a universal feature of human visual perception.

Muller-Lyer illusion

However, cross-cultural studies revealed something surprising: perception of the illusion varies widely—and Westerners are outliers. When scientists measured how different the segments appeared to different groups of people, they found that Westerners saw the greatest distortion. The Zulu, Fang, and Ijaw people of Africa observed half as much. The San foragers of the Kalahari didn’t perceive the illusion at all: they recognized right away that a and b were the same length. People raised in Western countries literally don’t see things the same way as the foragers of the Kalahari. Your experience of the world changes what you take to be true, and vision is no exception.

What characterizes us as a species is not a particular aesthetic preference, but the multiple, meandering paths of creativity itself.

What about music? Isn’t that often referred to as a universal language? The music we hear daily seems to follow consistent norms. But a survey of indigenous music from around the world reveals great diversity in what we listen to and how we listen, ranging far beyond familiar Western practice. When Western parents want their baby to fall asleep they sing a soothing lullaby, gradually subsiding into a whisper—but Aka Pygmies sing louder, while patting their child on the neck. In Western classical music playing in tune is considered beautiful, but in traditional Javanese music, detuning is considered attractive. In the music of some indigenous cultures, everyone plays at his own speed; in others, such as Mongolian throat singing, the music has no recognizable melody; in others still, the music is played on unusual instruments, such as the water drummers of the Vanuatu Islands who beat rhythms on the waves. Western meters tend to emphasize every second, third, or fourth beat, but Bulgarian rhythms incorporate metric patterns of seven, 11, 13, and 15 beats, and there are Indian rhythmic cycles of more than 100 beats. Western-tempered tuning divides the octave into 12 equally spaced tones, while classical Indian music divides the octave into 22 tones that are unequally spaced. Western ears hear pitch as high and low, but even that turns out to be enculturated: to the Roma people of Serbia, pitches are “large” and “small;” to the Obaya-Menza tribe they are “fathers” and “sons;” and to the Shona people of Zimbabwe, they are “crocodiles” and “people who chase after crocodiles.”

Despite these differences, are there underlying ties in music? What about a biological preference for how sounds are combined? Scientists proposed that we are all born loving consonance, so this was put to the test in infants. Because four- to six-month-olds can’t tell us what they’re thinking, one has to look for clues in their behavior. A research team set up a room with loudspeakers on either side. They played a Mozart minuet out of one speaker. Then they turned that speaker off and out of the other, they played a distorted version of the same minuet, in which Mozart’s music was turned into a parade of grating dissonances. In the center of the room a baby sat on the parent’s lap, and the researchers tracked how long the infant listened to each piece of music before turning away. The results? The babies paid attention for longer to the original Mozart than to the dissonant version. It seemed like compelling evidence that a preference for consonance is innate.

But then experts in music cognition began to question this conclusion. For one thing, some indigenous music, such as Bulgarian folk singing, is characterized by pervasive dissonance. Even within mainstream Western culture the sounds that are considered pleasing have changed over time: the simple consonant harmonies of Mozart’s minuet would have startled a medieval monk.

So cognitive scientists Sandra Trehub and Judy Plantinga revisited the head-turning experiment. They found a surprising result: The babies listened longer to whichever sample they heard first. If the dissonant version led off, that held their attention just as well as if the consonant version had precedence. Their conclusion was that we are not born with an innate preference for consonance. As with visual beauty, the sounds we appreciate aren’t locked in at birth.

Scientists have struggled to find universals that permanently link our species. Although we come to the table with biological predispositions, a million years of bending, breaking and blending have diversified our species’ preferences. We are the products not only of biological evolution but also of cultural evolution. Although the idea of universal beauty is appealing, it doesn’t capture the multiplicity of creation across place and time. Beauty is not genetically preordained. As we explore creatively, we expand aesthetically: everything new that we view as beautiful adds to the word’s definition. That is why we sometimes look at great works of the past and find them unappealing, while we find splendor in objects that previous generations wouldn’t have accepted. What characterizes us as a species is not a particular aesthetic preference, but the multiple, meandering paths of creativity itself.

The 17th-century playwright Ben Johnson hailed his contemporary Shakespeare as “not of an age, but for all time.” It’s hard to argue with him: the Bard has never been more popular than he is today. In 2016, the Royal Shakespeare Company completed a world tour, performing Hamlet in 196 countries. Shakespeare’s plays are continually revived and retold. Educated adults throughout the world can quote him. Shakespeare is an inheritance that we proudly pass on to our children.

But not so fast, Ben. What if in 500 years we can plug in neural implants that give us direct access to someone else’s feelings? It may turn out that the rich depth of brain-to-brain experience gives so much pleasure that watching a three-hour play on a stage (in which adults put on costumes and pretend to be someone else and feign to speak spontaneously) becomes just a matter of historical interest. What if the conflicts of Shakespeare’s characters come to seem outdated, and instead we want plots about genetic engineering, cloning, endless youth and artificial intelligence? What if there is such an oversupply of information that humanity can no longer afford to look back more than a generation or two, or even a year or two?

A future in which Shakespeare is absent from the cultural playbill seems hard to imagine, but it is a price we might pay for our inexorable imaginations. The needs of the time change, the community moves on. We are constantly letting go, making room for the new. Even those creative works that are enshrined by culture pass from the spotlight. Aristotle was the most studied author in the European Middle Ages. We still revere him, but more as a figurehead than as a living voice. When it comes to creative output, “timeless” usually comes with an expiration date.

But Shakespeare will never be entirely gone: even if his plays become the province of specialists, the Bard will live on in the DNA of his culture. As far as immortality goes, that may be enough. In the face of the human thirst for novelty, if creative work survives for five or six centuries it has achieved something few manage. We honor our ancestors by living creatively in our own time, even if it means wearing away the past. Shakespeare may have wanted to be the greatest playwright of his time—but not, presumably, the last playwright for all time. His voice is still heard alongside those he has inspired. Some day, the playwright who wrote that “all men and women…have their exits and their entrances” may himself withdraw to the backstage of history. Impermanence and obsolescence are the price we pay for living in cultures that continually refashion themselves.

Anthony Brandt is a composer and professor at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. He is also Artistic Director of the contemporary music ensemble Music, winner of two Awards for Adventurous Programming from Chamber Music America and ASCAP.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, an adjunct professor at Stanford University, and the author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and Sum: Tales from the Afterlives. He has written for The New York Times, Discover Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, Wired, and other publications.

Adapted from The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World Copyright © 2017 by Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman. Published by Catapult.

Get the Nautilus newsletter

The newest and most popular articles delivered right to your inbox!

WATCH: Why some music sounds like noise to listeners.

22 Comments - Join the Discussion