Can a machine tell us about beauty?

Trapped on a plane flying to Salt Lake City, I got to thinking about the recent article on how ‘the same brain centers that appreciate art were being activated by beautiful maths‘. In a caffeine-fueled binge, I started righting a purple prose-filled essay on the subject. Clark Ashton Smith would be proud:

Our brain works through a series of chemical messaging systems: payloads of neurotransmitters cross synapses, ions whizz through directly-connected gap junctions, molecular cascades tumble through cells. And on a gross level we have large chunks of grubby grey matter whose fluctuating electrical potentials draw in blood when we see beauty. Yet the phenomenon of beauty is not solely based on the level of blood flow in our brains; rather, it is the precise matrix of neurons and proteins and peptides that are in flux at the right moment that creates our emergent feelings of aesthetics. The beauty of a sunset is not the beauty of literature is not the beauty of an equation, despite what our burbling blood whispers to the thrumming MRI machines.

Anyway, despite the ‘poetics’, the point is real. There is a lot of cynicism among certain in the neuroscience community about the utility of fMRI. This certainly isn’t helped by dead-salmon studies of the ilk that Neuroskeptic or Neurocritic often point out. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful! Because of the reward function in science, labs are motivated to oversell their findings – and the media et al help them get away with it, because they don’t really understand what’s going on and like pretty pictures of brains. Yet even when the result is simply finding that some area of the brain ‘lights up’ to some stimulus, that still tells us something about the underlying circuitry, and where to go check for more details.

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