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(illusions)

The Neurology of Aesthetics


How visual-processing systems shape our feelings about what we see
BY VILAYANUR S. RAMACHANDRAN AND DIANE ROGERS-RAMACHANDRAN

WHAT IS ART? Probably as a


many defi nitions exist as do
artists and art critics. Art is
clearly an expression of our
aesthetic response to beauty.
But the word has so many
connotations that it is best
from a scientific point of
view to confine ourselves to
the neurology of aesthetics.
Aesthetic response varies
from culture to culture. The
sharp bouquet of Marmite is
avidly sought after by the
English but repulsive to most
Americans. The same applies
to visual preferences; we have
personally found no special
appeal in Picasso. Despite this
diversity of styles, many have
wondered whether there are
some universal principles. Do
we have an innate grammar of aes- of laws of aesthetics, of which we the limbic system saying, in effect,
thetics analogous to the syntactic uni- will describe six: grouping, symmetry, Here is something important: pay at-
versals for languages proposed by lin- hypernormal stimuli, peak shift, isola- tention a minimal requirement for
guist Noam Chomsky of the Massa- tion and perceptual problem solving. aesthetics. Fashion designers under-
chusetts Institute of Technology? For each law, we will explain what stand the principle of grouping. The
The answer may be yes. We suggest function it might serve and what neu- salesclerk suggests a white tie with blue

COURTESY OF RICHARD GREGORY (top) ; MICHAEL FREEMAN Corbis (bottom)


that universal laws of aesthetics may ral machinery mediates it.
cut across not only cultural boundaries b
but across species boundaries as well. Pay Attention!
Can it be a coincidence that we fi nd Let us consider grouping
birds and butterfl ies attractive even first. In (a), you get the sense of
though they evolved to appeal to other your visual system struggling
birds and butterflies, not to us? Bower- to discover and group together
birds produce elegant bachelor pads seemingly unrelated fragments
(bowers) that would probably elicit fa- of a single object, in this case a
vorable reviews from Manhattan art dalmatian. When the correct
critics as long as you auctioned them fragments click into place, we
at Sothebys and did not reveal that feel a gratifying aha. That
they were created by birdbrains. enjoyable experience, we sug-
In 1994, in a whimsical mood, we gest, is based on direct messag-
came up with a somewhat arbitrary list es sent to pleasure centers of

( When the correct fragments click into place,


we feel a gratifying aha. )
16 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND O c to b e r/ N ove m b e r 2 0 0 6
( Evolution has had a hand in shaping the
appeal of symmetry. )
flecks to match the blue of your jacket. stimulus requirements. But he
Grouping evolved to defeat cam- then made a remarkable discov-
ouflage and more generally to detect ery. If the chick viewed a long
objects in cluttered environments. thin piece of cardboard with
Imagine a tiger hidden behind foliage three red stripes, it went berserk.
(d). All your eye receives are several The chick preferred this strange
yellowish tiger fragments. But your vi- stimulus to a real beak. Without
sual system assumes that all these realizing it, Tinbergen had
fragments cannot be alike by coinci- stumbled on what we call a su-
dence, and so it groups them to assem- perbeak. (He later shared the
ble the object and pays attention. Lit- 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology
tle does the salesperson realize that he or Medicine for his work on an-
or she is tapping into this ancient bio- imal behavior patterns.)
logical principle in selecting your tie. We do not know why this ef-
Evolution also had a hand in shap- fect occurs, but it probably re-
ing the appeal of symmetry. In nature, sults from the way in which vi-
most biological objects (prey, predator, sual neurons encode sensory in-
mate) are symmetrical. It pays to have formation. The way they are
an early warning alert system to draw wired may cause them to respond
G U S TAV K L I M T, S T U DY O F A N U D E . P H O T O G R A P H B Y G R A R D B L O T R u n i o n d e s M u s e s N a t i o n a u x / A r t R e s o u r c e , N Y

your attention to symmetry, leading more powerfully to an odd pat-


quickly to appropriate action. This at- tern, thereby sending a big aha
traction explains symmetrys allure, jolt to the birds limbic system.
whether for a child playing with a ka- What has a superbeak got to
leidoscope or for Emperor Shah Jahan, do with art? If gull chicks had an
who built the Taj Mahal (b) to immor- art gallery, they would hang a
talize his beautiful wife, Mumtaz. long stick with stripes on the
c
Symmetry may also be attractive be- wall, and they would likewise
cause asymmetrical mates tend to be adore it and pay dearly to own one. gested that cells in the monkey brain
unhealthy, having had bad genes or Art, similarly, stirs collectors to plunk that are known to respond to indi-
parasites in their early development. down thousands of dollars for a paint- vidual faces (such as Joe, the alpha
Let us turn now to a less obvious ing without understanding why it is so male) will do so even more vigorously
universal law, that of hypernormal compelling. Through trial and error to a caricature of the face than the
stimuli. Ethologist Nikolaas Tinber- and ingenuity, modern artists have original. This strong response has now
gen of the University of Oxford noticed discovered ways of tapping into idio- been confirmed in experiments by Do-
more than 50 years ago that newly syncratic aspects of the brains primi- ris Tsao of Harvard University.
hatched seagull chicks started begging tive perceptual grammar, producing
for food by pecking at their mothers the equivalent for the human brain of Why Less Is More
beak, which is light brown with a red what the striped stick is for the chicks We turn to the next two related
spot. A chick will peck equally fervent- brain. principles: isolation and perceptual
ly at a disembodied beak; no gull need A related principle, called peak problem solving, or peekaboo.
be attached to it. This instinctive be- shift, plays a role in the appreciation Any artist will tell you that some-
havior arose because, over millions of of caricature or even good portraiture. times in art less is more; a little doo-
years of evolution, the chicks brain Features that make a particular face dle of a nude is much more beautiful
has learned that a long thing with a (for example, George W. Bushs) differ than a full-color 3-D photograph of a
red spot means mother and food. from the average of hundreds of naked woman. Why? Doesnt this
Tinbergen found that he could elic- male faces are amplified selectively so phenomenon contradict peak shift?
it pecking without a beak. A long stick the result looks even more Bush-like To resolve this particular contra-
with a red spot would do. The visual than Bush himself. In 1998 philoso- diction, we need to recall that our
neurons in the chicks brain are obvi- pher William Hirstein of Elmherst brains have limited attentional re-
ously not very fussy about the exact College and I (Ramachandran) sug- sources an attentional bottleneck re-

w w w. s c i a m m i n d . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND 17


(illusions)

( The very act of searching for the hidden object is


enjoyable, not just the final aha of recognition. )
sults because only a single pattern of University of California, San Francis- seems to enjoy discovering a hidden
neural activity can exist at a time. Here co, has shown that even some adult object. Evolution has seen to it that the
is where isolation comes in. A cleverly patients who develop a degeneration very act of search ing for the hidden
contrived doodle or sketch (c) allows of their frontal and temporal lobes object is enjoyable, not just the fi nal
your visual system to spontaneously (called frontotemporal dementia) sud- aha of recognition lest you give up
allocate all your attention to where it is denly develop artistic talents, possibly too early in the chase. Otherwise, we
needed namely, to the nudes contour because they can now allocate all their would not pursue a potential prey or
or shape without being distracted by attention to the parietal lobes. mate glimpsed partially behind bushes
or dense fog. Every partial
d glimpse of an object (d)
prompts a search leading
to a mini aha that sends
a message back to bias ear-
lier stages of visual pro-
cessing. This message in
turn prompts a further
search and after several
such iterations and mini
ahas we arrive at the
final aha! of recognition.
The clever fashion design-
er or artist tries to evoke as
many such mini ahas,
ambiguities, peak shifts
and paradoxes as possible
in the image.
We have barely touched
on more elusive aspects of
aesthetics such as visual
metaphor, a pleasing res-
onance between the visual
all the other irrelevant clutter (color, A related law of aesthetics is and symbolic elements of an image.
texture, shading, and so on) that is not peekaboo. In the ninth century A.D. Between the aesthetics of gull chicks
as critical as the beauty of her form Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta and the sublime beauty of a Monet, we
conveyed by her outlines. discovered this effect, which Austrian- have a long journey ahead to truly un-
Evidence for this view comes from British art historian Sir Ernst Gom- derstand visual processing in the
autistic children with savant skills brich rediscovered in the 20th century. brain. Meanwhile our studies have
such as Nadia. She produced astonish- An unclothed person who has only given us tantalizing glimpses of what
ingly beautiful drawings, perhaps be- arms or part of a shoulder jutting out the terrain might look like, inspiring
cause, while most of her brain was from behind a shower curtain or who us to continue our pursuit. M
functioning suboptimally, she may is behind a diaphanous veil is much
have had an island of spared corti- more alluring than a completely un- VILAYANUR S. RAMACHANDRAN and
cal tissue in her parietal lobe, which is covered nude. Just as the thinking DIANE ROGERS-RAMACHANDRAN are at
known to be involved in ones sense of parts of our brains enjoy intellectual the Center for Brain and Cognition at the
artistic proportion. Hence, she could problem solving, the visual system University of California, San Diego.
THEO ALLOFS Corbis

spontaneously deploy all her atten-


tional resources to this one spared art (Further Reading)
module. (Once she grew up and Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. Semir Zeki. Oxford University
gained other social skills, her artistic Press, 2000.
skills vanished.) Bruce Miller of the A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. V. S. Ramachandran. Pi Press, 2005.

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