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Mathematics as beautiful as art: Study

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Brain scans of a group of mathematicians have indicated that numbers and letters in a mathematical formula can evoke the same sense of beauty as artistic masterpieces and music.

Under a study conducted by the University College London, 15 mathematicians were given 60 formulae to rate as beautiful, neutral or ugly.

Two weeks later, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to image the brain activity of the mathematicians as they viewed and re-rated the same mathematical formulae.

The study found that mathematical beauty activated the same part of the emotional brain – namely the medial orbito-frontal cortex – that is used to appreciate the beauty derived from art or music.

“A large number of areas of the brain are involved when viewing equations, but when one looks at a formula rated as beautiful it activates the emotional brain – the medial orbito-frontal cortex – like looking at a great painting or listening to a piece of music,” said Professor Semir Zeki, one of the researchers.

“To many of us mathematical formulae appear dry and inaccessible but to a mathematician an equation can embody the quintessence 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.”

Leonhard Euler’s identity, the Pythagorean identity and the Cauchy-Riemann equations were the formulae most consistently rated as beautiful.

“Neuroscience can’t tell you what beauty is, but if you find it beautiful the medial orbito-frontal cortex is likely to be involved, you can find beauty in anything,” he said.

The study is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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