Psychology Trivia: What Is Beauty? How Do You Define Beauty?


Functional beauty? Unfunctional things are not beautiful?

When I was younger, I loved sports cars. That was normal for newly licensed drivers in the good old days, but things have changed a lot with the times. In Japan, most of the young people are no longer interested in cars, let alone sports cars. Moreover, ordinary engine cars are getting replaced by electric cars year by year. Sports cars are threatened with extinction.

Speaking of sports cars, I strongly believed at that time that they were a symbol of beauty, because every detail of sports cars is designed only for speed. They are collections of correct answers as a means of transportation. In other words, sports cars are functionally correct. The young me simply thought that would be the reason why they look beautiful. Indeed, such an easy logic once comforted me to some degree but later provoked some smoldering questions. For example, what about art that is of no utility? Many people seem to believe art is beautiful, though. In this way, this simple question has remained in me. What is beauty?

Lamborghini Miura P400 in gold metalic color. The front and rear cowls are widely opened.
Source: https://www.dw.com/en/why-sports-cars-are-works-of-art/a-45661630

The definition of beauty in philosophy and science

Since I was young, I have tried to read philosophy books mainly to make myself look smart. One day, I found Immanuel Kant wrote about aesthetic judgement in his work. As usual, it was too difficult, and my attempt (to make myself look smart) ended up in failure. In such time as I had been in the depths of despair about my poor understanding, a simple sentence of a scientific paper tagged my eyes. The article said, “Beauty is judged within 1 second in the brain. To be more precise, it’s only in 0.8 seconds.

Beauty is pleasure in the brain

I thought beauty was a subject of philosophy, but now it seems many (neuro) scientists have been studying it as well. In fact, they have already identified brain regions contributing to processing aesthetic appeal. Some researches show that there is a close relation between beauty and pleasure responses in our neural network. The Plato’s definitionーbeauty is pleasure through eye or earーseems to be correct somehow.

A wooden dining table with four wooden chairs by the big window. On the table is a white porcelain plate. Besides, a Mayuhana lamp is hang over the table.

The keys to beauty

I know we now come to have another mystery to solve. What is pleasure? The same as my other articles, I can’t draw a clear conclusion here, but the scientific paper gives us a good clue this time. There are some key properties to increase the aesthetic appeal of an object, and two of them are shared in the scientific paper. They are “symmetry” and “curvature.” In that sense (in terms of neuro-science), our products (the above chair consists only of curved lines, for example) can be said to be beautiful.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.