Anyone who knows the recent research that shows that a reader’s brains are directly, measurably affected by reading fiction won’t be surprised to learn that mathematics can have a similar effect – at least on mathematicians. A recent article in Nature citing research in Frontiers of Human Neurooscience describes how scientists at University College London used nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to track the response of mathematicians’ brains to equations – but specifically those that the mathematicians regarded as “beautiful.”
Comprehension apparently plays a big part in the response – once again, something that won’t surprise those familiar with similar instances in literature. The researchers found that the mathematicians’ brains showed responses in exactly the area associated with appreciation of beautiful paintings or music, confirming the cliche that mathematics is a thing of beauty to mathematicians. The results also showed that the mathematicians had similar responses to the most beautiful, and ugliest, equations. A control group knowing nothing of mathematics showed no such reaction.
Given the effects that literature can have on your brain, it should be no surprise that mathematics can as well. It also ought to comfort both readers and wranglers to know that there are real objective correlates for their subjective experience of beauty, in prose or in numbers. And we have the NMR scans to prove it.