The marvellous and (somewhat) mysterious beauty buzz
Recently, I had an experience that was memorable, but like many I have had before. Despite COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, my wife, Margaret, and I were able to go for a walk in a nearby coastal national park.
Recently, I had an experience that was memorable, but like many I have had before. Despite COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, my wife, Margaret, and I were able to go for a walk in a nearby coastal national park. We were on a mission—to follow a friend’s urging to see a display of flannel flowers. These are large multi-petalled white flowers that grow in profusion a year or so after a bushfire.
Just as we had been told, we found masses of the flowers everywhere in the coastal heath. They looked especially stunning when viewed against the azure blue background of the Pacific Ocean and cloudless sky.
We walked with no sense of effort, utterly absorbed in the landscape. Pleasureaccompanied every step, sometimes with a sense of intense joy. ‘It almost makes me want to cry’, Margaret remarked at one point. When it came time to turn back, we did so reluctantly.
Little was said during the walk but afterwards we talked animatedly about the experience and its effects on us. We also enjoyed reliving the walk by viewing the photos I had taken and by telling others about it.
We came away from the experience with an emotional ‘high’ or ‘glow’. We felt revitalised as well as happy. Immersion is the ‘goodness’ of natural beauty had lifted our spirits and, for a time at least, made the world seem a better place.
The flannel flowers and their setting had given us a sustained dose of the beauty buzz, otherwise known as aesthetic pleasure. I talked briefly about the aesthetic pleasure in my last post, but there is more I would like to share.
Aesthetic pleasure is triggered by beauty in any form, and beauty, we are told, ‘is in the eye of the beholder’. Strictly speaking, it is in the beholder’s brain. Natural beauty (or beauty of any kind) is not something we encounter or discover. Natural beauty is not actually in nature waiting to be observed. Rather, beauty is behind our eyes in our brain; it is a quality that our brain “gives” to things. The beauty of a flower, a sunset, a mountain panorama or anything else exists totally in the activity of brain cells. Beauty is not a thing we find, but a response we make. And the fact that there is such a response and that we can appreciate beauty at all is one of the most intriguing and amazing features of our brains.
But it is not a special or unique feature. The human brain is always putting its own spin on the information it receives. It does not register the world exactly as it is but creates a story about it. This is not the brain being tricky. It works this way to cope with the millions of bits of information it receives every second. It registers what information it can and fills in the gaps by drawing on expectations to ‘guess’ and predict what is and what will be.
Margaret and I, for example, started our walk with subconscious expectations about flannel flowers formed from our many past encounters with them. We had an idea (‘schema’) or expectation in our minds of how flannel flowers occur in the wild. But we encountered something surprisingly different, not distressingly so, but delightfully—indeed beautifully—different.
Surprising as it may seem, surprise is integral to the beauty buzz. Broadly speaking, beauty is an interesting and appealing departure from the usual, normal and expected. It is a quality that our brains give to the ‘extra-ordinary’. When the extraordinary is associated with a sense of vastness, the emotion evoked is wonder or awe; and if the extraordinary is too extreme, anxiety and fear result.
Rewarding ‘feel-good’ emotions are also integral to the beauty buzz. The ‘buzz’ is delivered by the brain’s reward system. The structures in this system produce dopamine, a chemical which generates feelings ranging from gentle pleasure to euphoria. That is why the beauty buzz is something we want to experience again and again. Margaret and I might have said we went on our walk to see the flannel flowers, but our real mission was to enjoy the beauty buzz.
We expected to get the buzz because we have memories of other pleasurable encounters with flannel flowers. The reward system includes structures responsible for memory and learning. The involvement of those structures means that the beauty buzz motivates us to learn about and to remember the circumstances that provided the experience. In other words, the beauty buzz fosters learning.
It also stirs us into activity, especially activity that engages us more closely with whatever it is we are experiencing as beautiful. That is why my wife and I had no trouble surrendering our attention to the flowers and walking on and on to see more of them. That is why the beauty buzz is described as a ‘get-up-and-go emotion’ as well as a rewarding one.
Why do we have a system in our brains that enables us to perceive beauty, to feel rewarded when we do, and moves us to stay with the experience to learn more about it? The answer, quite simply, is that without it, humanity would not have survived. For the first members of our species, the ability to experience aesthetic pleasure was indispensable. It helped our ancient forebears identify what was good for them in the natural world and what could cause them harm. Their brains had evolved to associate beauty with beneficial and hospitable aspects of the natural environment, such as water, food bearing plants and hunter-friendly woodlands, and to regard as unattractive features and objects like dense vegetation and putrefying carcasses, that should be avoided or destroyed.
Just as we do, our earliest ancestors found panoramic views especially engaging and useful. For them, panoramas combined beauty with opportunities to gather important survival information about safe routes to follow, the presence of danger and the availability of food, water and shelter.
A team of psychologists from the University of California at Berkley led by Jai Wei Zhang have investigated the link between the beauty buzz and kindness experimentally. Zhang and his team reasoned that if beauty can shift perspectives away from the self and towards others, then the greater the beauty the more the shift. A well designed set of studies confirmed their prediction. A bigger dose of beauty did make people more generous, trusting and helpful, especially if they were already sensitive to natural beauty.
Zhang and his team drew this encouraging conclusion from their findings:
Human civilization has had a profound and ancient relationship with the natural world. In this research, we asked the question, does nature help promote the greater good? Our studies reveal that it does.