A Stunning Equation: Brain Finds Beauty in Math Similar to Art and Music, Researchers Find

Some people see math as an unapproachable, cumbersome difficulty. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and a new study shows that those who value mathematics use the same part of their brain that appreciates art or music when looking at equations. Yes, for math lovers, formulas can be breathtaking.

Researchers from the University College London, Imperial College London, and the University of Edinburgh found that mathematicians express an emotional experience when it comes to equations. Is it the same as admiring the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel or getting lost in the violin solo of an orchestral performance? Scientists say it is. While these experiences are more sensory, research suggests that there may be a neurological basis to beauty.

Mathematicians had their brains scanned while looking at 60 equations they previously rated as "ugly" or "beautiful." Researchers found the medial orbito-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with emotion, had activity correlating to the perception of the numbers and symbols.

So what formulas were the Shakespeare's and Van Gogh's of math? Leonhard Euler’s identity, the Pythagorean identity, and the Cauchy-Riemann equations were voted as the most beautiful, while Srinivasa Ramanujan’s infinite series and Riemann’s functional equation were the ugliest. Kudos to you if you can explain at least two of those.

The more alluring mathematicians found the equation, the higher the amount of activity in that particular area of the brain. One researcher says that the collection of figures and statements inspire and "gives you the enthusiasm to find out about things," with loveliness in the equation's ability to sum up complex problems. Semir Zeki, lead author of the study, says that although neuroscience cannot determine exactly what constitutes as beautiful, the findings reinforce the idea that you can find beauty in anything.

“To many of us mathematical formulae appear dry and inaccessible but to a mathematician an equation can embody the quintescence of beauty. The beauty of a formula may result from simplicity, symmetry, elegance or the expression of an immutable truth. For Plato, the abstract quality of mathematics expressed the ultimate pinnacle of beauty."
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