Our Reaction to Beauty: Art, Science, & Einstein

Our Reaction to Beauty: Art, Science, & Einstein

by Jim Aldrich

How we use words and phrases is our connection to the world beyond our mind.  This use becomes our affirmation of beauty in our world. Does this statement represent a theory, thought, or idea?  Or, does it contain elements of science, as in the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena? Let’s take a little side trip where we can explore this sometimes awkward relationship between beauty and science.

Childhood Memories

Remember for a moment that time in your life when, for the very first time you experienced a spectacular painting? There you are anxiously awaiting a fun day with your mother. The scene has you most likely a young child in tow of your parent.

“As their van pulled into the parking lot of the Museum of Art and Science six year old Susan was ready to explore all that the visit to the museum promised. All except those things they called paintings. She thought to herself how weird that people would collect drawings to put on display. “Heck,” she thought, “some aren’t even pictures of anything. Just scribbles on paper.”

Susan had managed to steer her mother away from those awful paintings for as long as she could until finally her mother said “Well Susan, just one more area to visit. “Come on, you’re going to like this, I promise.”

So there you were this short six year old looking up at row after row of paintings wanting nothing more than to be at home. “Almost done, mommy?” you ask.

“Why yes, Susan, there’s just a couple more.” Just when you thought it was over you found yourself looking at some drawing of a child helping their parent in the birthing of a calf. “Whoa, this I like!” you thought and sure enough, this marked your introduction to the world of art appreciation.


Art Appreciation: Science or Feeling?

I suppose as it is meant to be, it is seldom that I go beyond wonderment at the forms of beauty found in a painting. I choose to ignore any physiological or psychological explanations for my enjoyment. All I want to do is enjoy the feelings associated with the painting.

Yet, sitting here at home at my keyboard I am miles away from any collection of paintings. It is here when it is just me and my mind at work that I find myself asking questions about art, beauty, science, and the like. Questions like, what is the meaning of art and psychology? Here, I am not overwhelmed by beauty. It is here, far removed from the emotions of those moments in an art gallery that I can ask if there is a valid link between art and psychology.

This is one of the outcomes of walking a tightrope between the beauty and aesthetics of art and the objective and logical application of the science of psychology. My challenge is reconciling what on the surface feels like a contradiction. It was in one of these times of angst that I needed to take a break from the subject at hand. I left my computer, sat down in my easy chair, and picked up my copy of the Wall Street Journal newspaper. There, on page 3 of section D (June 17, 2014) I saw the headline, “Our Brains Are Made For Enjoying Art.

What I found revealing in the article was an understanding of why my reaction to a painting can be so powerful. The theory goes this way. When we encounter an object of beauty different regions of the brain (the mind?) are triggered. The studies used in the article found that a painting involves the use of memory, pleasure, emotion, vision, and pleasure. When combined, these responses provide us with a pleasurable interpretation of the object. It is this pleasurable interpretation that gives rise to the theory that art appreciation is an innate function of the brain.

If this is true, that there is a natural connection between our mind and art appreciation, then perhaps this is an idea that can be extended into other areas of our experiences. That place where we enjoy other feelings about events that have us responding with “now that’s familiar, or” I know I’ve experienced this before,” and of course “I know I’ve seen this before” become explainable.


An Answer, Try Einstein

Déjà vu, coincident, or chance? I will never know. But what I found was an astute article that didn’t make any attempt at resolving my contradiction, but rather applied the findings of scientific study to the workings of our mind as vehicles of art appreciation. As I gave further thought to my seemingly irreconcilable contradiction, I discovered that human emotion and the practice of science can both be a part of the same focus, I thought of Albert Einstein and his revolutionary work on the Theory of Relativity.

“Why certainly,” Einstein would argue, “it is quite possible for a single entity to possess the attributes of two opposites.”

Thank you Dr. Einstein. I can begin to grasp the concept that this thing, art is a “this” while simultaneously being a “that.” Let me clarify.


  • That: A work of art that adds to my understanding in both thought and action my discernment of that which mirrors beauty.


Enjoying the Tightrope

My fear of heights aside, being able to observe more clearly than ever before this relationship between art and psychology becomes not only liberating, but enlightening.

It is coming together, my understanding of that relationship between art as depicted in painting and the psychology of art. While I still find myself on that tightrope, I am also finding that it is becoming a vantage point from where I can gain insight and perspective rather than confusion. I am all right with wrestling over why something is more beautiful in my eyes rather than how can this be.