Beauty in the eye of the beholder

by Marcus Loane

Saxophone - the drug without unhealthy side effects

When someone who has never been exposed to it before, hears modern jazz, it sounds to them like a cacophony. To them it is an unpleasant experience and they are astonished to see others who seem to be enjoying it. Now is the sound pleasant or not? There is no truth of the matter. The brains processing the sounds are wired differently. How it sounds is a property of the brains processing the air vibrations hitting the ear drums. Now traditional jazz is more structured and rhythmic and more people will find it pleasant at a first audition. Jazz enthusiasts however may start with the traditional jazz and then tire of it and desire a little novelty. Something with some subtle improvisation, a changed note here or there, leads to more stimulation. I suggest that repeated listening is actually changing the wiring in the listeners' brains. A first listening and a tenth listening of a piece of music sounds different, so the brain that is processing the sounds must have been modified by the sounds. The desire for novelty in the sounds often leads to a progression along a range of ever more unstructured and discordant styles. The cacophony to the untrained brain is pleasurable to the jazz-modified brain.

This phenomenon can be generalised to other areas. Novice wine drinkers prefer a sweet white wine but can progress gradually through medium white, to rose, to dry red wine. By then a dry red wine tastes different to them, than it would if they had started with it. The pattern seems to be that something is pleasurable but on repetition it becomes less pleasurable (the brain has changed), so a little novelty, some small alteration to the original stimulus hits the spot. The brain then adapts to this and more novelty is required. The cycle repeats. In addition, with training, the brain can get better at ever finer discriminations between stimuli. Seasoned wine tasters can distinguish differences that novices are incapable of. How does a dry red wine taste? There is no truth of the matter.

How did your first ever coffee taste? Horrible I'll guess, but now it is a desirable taste. The brain that is creating what we call "taste" has changed. What is the taste of coffee? There is no truth of the matter. Taste is not a property of coffee. It is a property of brains wired with reactive dispositions to the chemical structure of coffee. Imagine a world of only plants. In that world coffee could not be said to have a taste, a smell or even a colour.

I have used the words "There is no truth of the matter", but in one sense there is. We could enquire about the experiences of all music listeners, all wine tasters or all coffee drinkers and then state that the most common taste of coffee is X, or the majority say the taste of coffee is Yor the average response to coffee is Z. The truth of the matter could be said to be statistical and only has meaning when it is in combination with a person or a group or a species. Another species, if they could talk, might reach a different majority view.

[Please don't confuse me with postmodernists who claim that everything is subjective and there is no truth about anything. There is a truth of the matter whether the moon is made of rock or green cheese.]


To us the smell of rotting flesh disgusts but to the vulture it is delightful (I would guess). Rotting flesh does not smell bad in itself, it smells bad to human brains. Beauty is another of those qualities that only exists in brains which have come up with the concept. We often differ in what we find beautiful but we do agree on some things that are beautiful - certain human faces and bodies, the diversity of nature or a sunset. Mathematicians see beauty in the abstract structures they create. Physicists see beauty in the order of the universe. I see beauty in all of life - snakes, lizards, slugs, spiders and bacteria included. Without brains the beauty is not there. A sunset does not have the property of beauty, it does not even have a colour, without a species with brains that perceive it. The arrangement of matter that is the rear end of a cow is sexually attractive to a bull but ugly to most humans. A young woman who is beautiful to a man is a fearsome object to a nervous blackbird. The property of beauty, sexual attractiveness, colour and many others are not properties of objects alone. They are properties that only make sense when in combination with a type of viewer, and they vary depending on the viewer.

The moral of the story is that people differ.

We are all the same in many ways. However, something important which I have realised is that what people value can differ greatly. What people value is largely a result of what they have been exposed to. One person's waste of time is another's reason for living. You cannot prescribe what should be meaningful for others. What is meaningful to you may be frivolous to others. Doctors may scoff at artists, poets may scoff at mathematicians, and scientists may scoff at philosophers. They all have something to contribute to the strange experience of being alive.

Marcus Loane