We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Experiencing Beauty Requires Thought

Experiencing Beauty Requires Thought content piece image
The study, by NYU doctoral candidate Aenne Brielmann, left, and NYU Professor Denis Pelli, right, included experiments to determine how beauty and sensuous pleasures are processed. Credit: Zach Gross
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 1 minute

Experiencing beauty requires thought, a team of neuroscientists finds, in a new study that confirms an 18th-century claim by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

“The experience of beauty is a form of pleasure,” explains New York University’s Denis Pelli, a professor of psychology and neural science and the study’s senior author. “To get it, we must think.”

“From Homer’s Iliad to today’s nearly-$500-billion cosmetics industry, beauty always matters,” adds Aenne Brielmann, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s lead author. “Our study reveals what makes beauty special.”

The research, which appears in the journal Current Biology, tested twin claims by Kant. In his 1764 work Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, and later in Critique of Pure Judgment, he posited that experiencing beauty requires thought, but that sensuous pleasure can be enjoyed without thought and cannot be beautiful.

The scientists examined whether experiencing beauty requires thought and sensuous pleasure does not.

They conducted a series of experiments in which the study’s participants selected images from the Internet that they found “movingly beautiful.” Participants were shown the images they selected as well as images that were independently evaluated as “beautiful” or “plain” (e.g., a beautiful beach scene or a plain piece of cloth). To measure how we process sensuous pleasures, participants tasted fruit-flavored candy or touched teddy bears with various wool textures.

For each object, participants reported how much pleasure and beauty they felt. In one-half of the experiment, the same participants had to simultaneously complete a task: They listened to a sequence of letters and pressed a button every time the letter was the same as the one two letters back. This distracted the participants from thinking about the image, candy, or teddy bear while experiencing them.

Adding the distraction reduced the feelings of pleasure and beauty in viewing the beautiful images, but hardly affected that from non-beautiful things. These results support Kant’s claim that beauty requires thought.

The researchers were surprised, however, to discover that strong pleasure is always beautiful. A third of participants got very strong pleasure from the candy and teddy bear, and called these sensuous pleasures “beautiful.” This additional finding disproves Kant’s claim that sensuous pleasures cannot be beautiful.

So, if you seek maximum pleasure, these results recommend undistracted beauty wherever you find it, even in candy.

This article has been republished from materials provided by New York University. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

Brielman, A. A. and Denis, G. P., 'Beauty Requires Thought', Current Biology (2017), DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.04.018.