When I hear in a large audience the last movement of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven interpreted by a large orchestra and a large choral mass, I experiment "something" that transports me. It's something sublime, something that overwhelms me, overwhelms me, makes me small. Nor can I avoid that other, different feeling that leaves my eyes glued to those flaming suns, those blue skies twisted by the storm that painted Van Gogh. Look at those paintings subjugate me. Without a doubt, everyone knows that I'm talking about beauty. When speaking in this way it seems evident that we contemplate a beauty that is inherent to what is heard or seen, but it is not so. Beauty does not exist in the world we see, hear or touch. It does not exist in anything that surrounds us. The world does not possess any beauty; it is not, in anything, a property inherent to him. Beauty is created by the human brain. It only exists in the minds of human beings. It is a prodigy of the brain.
Before, it is true, it was thought that beauty was an attribute immanent to the things of the world or constitutive of the artistic work created. Beauty had its existence in itself, in the object, or in the external sensory stimuli, and the person was only a passive subject, contemplating this. In other words, beauty was objective, with an external and eternal presence in the world. Today we know, on the contrary, that beauty is something subjective, created by the human being and that is not outside, in the sensory world. Today we understand that beauty is created by the human being after observing and perceiving certain characteristics of the object that it contemplates. Beauty is, in fact, a mental construction made up of perceptions, emotions, feelings and knowledge.
Central to our beauty experience is that emotional plus that comes from what we perceive. An emotional plus evoked, as an invisible thread, by words when reading a poem, or the vision of a painting or a sculpture, or the sublime sound of a symphony, of a landscape of greens with multiple shades, of a dawn of colors without forms or a face of perfect proportions. But precisely because it is an emotion produced in that deep brain where the most intimate and personal memories are deposited in each human being, not everyone perceives beauty in the same way or in the same things. Moreover, it is that emotion that, when bathed in consciousness becomes feeling, makes each one, each human being, experience its own beauty, unique and different from any other.
What makes the sculptures of Chillida "stones without art" for some who admire Rodin's sculptures?
In fact, the appreciation of beauty is, to a large extent, the product of personal experience and the education received. All this makes some perceive in a special way beauty in painting, but not in music (Sigmund Freud it would be a good example of this), or that even in painting some value the colors, but not so much the shapes or the blurred features of the movement or the static figurative. Or, of course, that the music (of such a multifaceted aesthetic appreciation -suited harmonics, counterpoints, chords, rhythms and the infinite combinations of bass, treble and silence-) is perceived so differently by so many different people. (…) What does the novel have? The name of the rose, of Umberto Eco, that from beginning to end has captivated so many hundreds of thousands of people and exhausted, however, the interest of so many others before you can finish your reading? What drives so many people away from Stravinski and yet brings her closer to Mozart or Beethoven? What do so many people admire so deeply in the art of Velazquez that they reject Picasso's paintings? What makes the sculptures of Chillida to be for many "stones without art" and yet the sculptures of Rodin seem so evocative of beauty? What provokes the heat and awe of the Milan Duomo that does not produce in many the Guggenheim of Bilbao?
That emotion that underlies the appreciation of beauty is what is expressed in pleasure at what you see or hear. Pleasure, as an unconscious emotional expression, is the basic component in the appreciation of beauty. But not the pleasure referred to those basic pleasures, those that sustain the survival of the individual, such as those that are obtained from food, drink, sexuality, play or sleep, when you are deprived of them. The pleasure related to beauty is not the pleasure of desire and orgasm, which consummate punctually pushes you "without reason, and like swallowed bait, to keep you alive" (William Shakespeare). The joy, the delight referred to the beauty is achieved by neuronal ingredients added in the brain to those more basic. (…) They are pleasures generated in part by the culture in which one lives and beyond the emotional brain and its primitive activity. These are pleasures that arise from a very close interaction between the human cerebral cortex and the emotional brain, that is why no animal possesses them. From that interaction comes awareness, understanding, understanding, human reason.
Precisely the latter, the interaction with the things of the world (perception), produces knowledge, the other basic ingredient for the perception of beauty. Because beauty is that in its essence, pleasure and knowledge, and in the latter the cognitive capacity to notice order, proportionality, symmetry, clear delimitation of what is perceived. And all this has to do a lot with the education that is received and with the culture in which one is born and lives. (…) Just think that few citizens of the Middle Ages or even the Renaissance could have found beauty in the twisted human figures, the polychrome and flaming reds of the trees, the bright yellows of the wheat fields or the twisting and tormented blues of the paintings of Van Gogh, or the work of Antonio Gaudí (…). Art, then, and with it beauty, is a subjective truth for each one. Truth for which many people have had expressions such as "it has been worth living to experience it". Without a doubt, beauty is a brain phenomenon that has changed the world of human beings and the mythologies and alive truths of each society, culture or nation. Beauty, which does not exist in the world, is perhaps one of the great prodigies created by the human brain.
Francisco Mora He is a doctor from the universities of Granada (Spain) and Oxford (England) and university professor. He has published essay books, such as The clock of wisdom (2005) and Neuroculture (2007). This extract is part of Myths and truths of the brain (Paidós), which is published on October 23.