Intuitions about mathematical beauty: A case study in the aesthetic experience of ideas

Samuel G.B. Johnson, Stefan Steinerberger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (SciVal)
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Can an idea be beautiful? Mathematicians often describe arguments as “beautiful” or “dull,” and famous scientists have claimed that mathematical beauty is a guide toward the truth. Do laypeople, like mathematicians and scientists, experience mathematics aesthetically? Three studies suggest that they do. When people rated the similarity of simple mathematical arguments to landscape paintings (Study 1) or pieces of classical piano music (Study 2), their similarity rankings were internally consistent across participants. Moreover, when participants rated beauty and various other potentially aesthetic dimensions for artworks and mathematical arguments, they relied mainly on the same three dimensions for judging beauty—elegance, profundity, and clarity (Study 3). These aesthetic judgments, made separately for artworks and arguments, could be used to predict similarity judgments out-of-sample. These studies also suggest a role for expertise in sharpening aesthetic intuitions about mathematics. We argue that these results shed light on broader issues in how and why humans have aesthetic experiences of abstract ideas.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)242-259
Number of pages18
Early online date20 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2019 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


  • Aesthetics
  • Explanation
  • Psychology of mathematics
  • Reasoning
  • STEM education

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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