Immanuel KantNYU neuroscientists have found that experiencing beauty requires thought in a study that supports an 18th-century claim by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, above.Image credit: (c)iStock/wynnterExperiencing 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.

doctoral candidate Aenne Brielmann, left, and NYU Professor Denis Pelli, rightExperiencing beauty requires thought, a team of neuroscientists has found in a study that confirms an 18th-century claim by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. 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. In them, subjects were shown "beautiful" and ordinary images; to measure how we process sensuous pleasures, participants tasted fruit-flavored candy or touched teddy bears with various wool textures.Photo credit: Zach Gross

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.