A Theory of Beauty

Marcel Gregoriadis
3 min readJul 17, 2023

Last evening, I was once again captivated by the light show that was produced by the “galaxy” projector in our living room.

It’s a simple looped animation of traversing stars and a dynamic and color-rich night sky, projected by some cheap LED lights onto our walls. But it is enough to capture my full attention and have me stare at it for hours.

Photo taken by the author.

I wondered what it is about this image that has me so in awe. Moreover, what makes this so incredibly beautiful to me? And could I enhance this experience by adding more lights, more animation, more effects?

I started thinking that maybe it is simply the rich visual stimulation: The image covers the full view of my eyes, it makes use of a large range of colors, and it's constantly moving, which keeps the perceptive system in my brain busy.

Then I thought it might also be the hypnotic element of the motions in the animation, how everything seems to flow into each other in one big all-encompassing infinite cycle, the perception of a single universal connected entity.

This reminded me of the derivation of what constitutes (a high level of) consciousness in Anil Seth’s Being You, and the question of how it can be measured.

When your brain is stimulated, generally speaking, there is high neuronal activity. However, Anil argues that a conscious experience must be both, informative and integrated. That is, increasing neuronal activity does not automatically make for a more conscious experience, just as “free-form jazz at some point stops being music”.

What made the image in front of my eyes so beautiful was not just its visual stimuli (the richness in information) but its orderliness at the same time (the integration of the image). In other words, its complexity.

Adding any more visual effects to it would probably fail to integrate with the image, only adding noise rather than increasing its complexity.

Complexity has indeed been identified as the key to optimal experience in one of my favorite books, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In this book, the author suggests that we have the most beautiful and engaging experiences when we are in a state of flow. That is when we are not thinking about what we are doing but are completely involved with the task at hand, through it feeling connected with something that transcends our ego and self.

Photo by Gabriel Gurrola on Unsplash

This can happen when we play an instrument, write an essay, play a sport, solve a mathematical equation, and many other things. Mihaly argues that the experience becomes more joyful the more complex the activity is. For example, the flow experienced by a pianist playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (3rd Movement) is generally more positive than what a piano beginner would be capable of playing.

So the key to beauty seems to be complexity: the richness and integrity of experience.

This realization can be extrapolated to many things outside of light shows projected to living room walls, outside of art, and even outside of flow activities.

Complexity is what makes the universe so infinitely beautiful. It is also what makes society as a whole but also every single human being as an individual beautiful, literally, beyond comprehension.

Finally, it is what makes a good life!

It is not purely the richness of experience, which could be implemented as something resembling a hedonistic lifestyle. It is instead the orderly richness of experiences.

Order comes from having a purpose in life.

Thereby, we should not simply seek experiences that are loud and stimulating but those which are meaningful too — as that in the end is the true hallmark of a life well-lived.

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Marcel Gregoriadis

I try to understand the world by writing about it. My essays revolve around psychology, sociology, and philosophy.