In her book “Neurophilosophy”, Patricia Churchland points out that our idea of five senses leaves out many very particular sensitivities, like our sense of position and awareness of interior states. I would like to suggest that beauty itself is a sense, attuned to proportion, harmony of form, and order. Like the other senses, it is a response to these qualities and not an idea about them.
The sense of beauty offers guidance. Science uses the concept of elegance as indicative of a good theory and many scientists and mathematicians refer to their sense of beauty as leading them to the answers they sought. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” described the ability to discern significance as an aesthetic sense. The expert knew the statue was fraudulent because she could feel something missing. Her body of knowledge and increased sensitivity to her subject enabled her to quickly see “what’s wrong with this picture.”
Beauty is not an external thing, but part of our deepest understanding. External perceptions of beauty are triggered by what enlivens the inner sense.
We are what we give our attention to and recognize ourselves in our response to what we admire. The concept of projection is true for positives as well as negatives. Just like we recognize our own negative qualities in the world and tend to call out others for faults we also possess, we recognize our best selves in the things we value. In an experiment that asked people in an office to pick the best worker and say why, most people chose the same person but the traits they listed reflected their own best qualities. What we admire activates corresponding patterns in our mind and strengthens them. We get pleasure from the experience because it aids our growth.
When a beautiful work of art offers an insight into a feeling or paradox it can change our way of seeing. It is this power that Dave Hickey emphasizes in his book, “The Invisible Dragon”, writing, “Beauty…provided the image’s single claim to being looked at and to being believed”. Beauty has authority because it gets attention. If it’s more beautiful it keeps attention. Like plants have a tropism toward the sun, we have a tropism toward beauty.
Elaine Scarry, in her book, “On Beauty and Being Just”, writes that beauty “adrenalizes”. It stimulates the mind and draws it into contact with the place where beauty is discovered. She notes that beauty has no precedent. It is not something you can pin down, but is particular, yet you know it when you see it. The mirroring part of your brain brings the beauty inside. When we admire beauty we participate in it. It is the beautiful part of us that understands it. If the quality wasn’t in us we wouldn’t respond, couldn’t recognize it. This is true of human behavior as well as art. Attending a meeting of high school students taking a stand against violence, my admiration for their efforts reinforces the parts of me that know that caring and striving for a more just world connects us and is deeply beautiful. As Michael Samuels writes, in “Healing With the Mind’s Eye”, “Beauty is a force that links.”
Because of this capacity to connect, beauty is spiritually fortifying. I think of spirituality as what connects us to what’s beyond ourselves, criminality as what disconnects us. Being drawn to a work of art is a connection to the artist. The heart says, “yes” to a feeling recognized but perhaps never expressed before. We respond to what aligns with our own inner model.
Art educates our understanding of feeling. When we resonate with something it is because it’s already a part of us. We recognize and admire the qualities that we ourselves possess and strengthen them as we find them externally. Psychiatrist Alfred Adler said “Art may be esteemed the highest training for social life, inculcating into us attitudes of value and thus improving the nature of our responses.” Likewise, philosopher Susanne Langer felt that having beautiful objects around was essential to educating a child’s sense of proportion and quality.
Beauty nourishes our better selves, and because we love what is beautiful, beauty stimulates our ability to love.