Environmental aesthetics, or the visual appeal of geography and architecture, make up an important part of why we like to travel. On Lake Atitlan, the natural enchantment is amplified by a boat ride which affords views of a string of startling private homes, architectural works of mystical art. In this article I explore why the brain regards some visual scenes as ‘beautiful’.
Lake Atitlan came into being some 1.8 million years ago, when a volcanic eruption known as “Los Chocoyos” ejected up to 300 cubic kilometers of earth, forming the caldera, the large cauldron-shaped depression that forms following the evacuation of a magma chamber. Today, Lake Atitlan is 340 meters deep in some parts, surrounded by a ring of cone-peaked volcanos and its shores, strewn with numerous archeological sites and ruins of long-gone Mayan societies, speak of the important spiritual significance that these early communities attached to this mythical spot.
They say that on Lake Atitlan these geological anomalies give the place sacred vibrations and I believe it for no other reason than because we were especially happy here. “Relaxed” here took on new meaning, not because we were exceptionally inert, absorbed by the lustrous vistas, but for quite the opposite reason. Our time in San Marcos, a small, hippie, yoga-pursuing village on the Eastern slopes of the lake, was remarkably productive, and that is not what comes to mind when one thinks of being “relaxed”. I worked hard preparing my research reports for publication and trying to decipher Bayesian brain theory, Mischa did tutorials on Abbleton software and produced music. We worked and pondered and read and cooked and drank and took many moments for soaking in the awe-inspiring surroundings and everything seemed in a fine balance. There have been many moments during the earlier parts of the trip where things have felt in disequilibrium, so our time on the Lake was special.
Some consider Lake Atitlan to be one of the most beautiful regions in the world. One such thinker was Aldous Huxley, author of the classic, Brave New World. Huxley wrote, “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”
He was, of course, referring to the dramatic natural splendor, but in modern times, the lake’s enchantment is amplified by a boat ride which affords views of a string of startling private homes, architectural works of mystical art, perched on the steep slopes above the water’s edge. The spectacle was so mesmerizing it inspired the topic of this article. Which is, as the title explains, the neuroscience of visual aesthetics.
The neuroscience of Visual Aesthetics
As humans, we are explorers. We travel to open our minds up to different cultures and foreign modes of living but we also actively seek out environments that evoke strong emotional feelings in us. Beautiful places tend to be high on our travel agendas. In other words, environmental aesthetics, or the visual appeal of geography and architecture, make up an important part of why we like to travel. One look at Pinterest under the search term “travel” and this point is epitomized.
‘Habitat Theory’ and Why We See Beauty
According to the geologist, Jay Appleton, there is an evolutionary explanation for this. In his “habitat theory”, Appleton argues that the environment can elicit aesthetic judgments in us if the landscape (a lush field, for instance) signals something of biological relevance to us. In essence, we deem an environment to be beautiful if it helps regulate some aspect of our behavior that improves our chances of survival. A lush field, as an example, we perceive as alluring and it encourages us forth because, in all likelihood, it offers us food – or perhaps even a clear vantage point for relaxing and “gathering” without the worry of hidden predators. Biologically speaking, when something promotes our survival, this information is communicated to us in the form of positive emotions. Something we take to be beautiful is not just “good”, but it is good in a special kind of way – it conjures feelings of serenity, calmness, well-being. All these are highly valued to the modern homo sapiens.
Bodily Simulations: Experiencing Movement in the Visual Scene
There is more to this story, however, since we regularly find artificial scenes – the built environment – to be beautiful. Our modern day skyscrapers and interior design seem a far cry from the primordial settings that so shaped the brain. How then, do we explain a meaningful, aesthetic experience outside of natural scenery?
“Embodied simulation” has been proposed as a neural explanation for the emotional appreciation of a visual scene. It refers to a mechanism that the brain employs to understand the value or meaning of objects in the world around us – social or otherwise. Essentially, our capacity to make sense of a scene emerges because, as we perceive an object, the same brain regions that represent the bodily states associated with the scene, become automatically engaged. We call this mirror neuron activity. For instance, if you see a coffee mug, the areas in your brain that control your hand and the muscles you use to swallow fluid – even your taste buds – light up. Similarly, if you see a fluffy surface, your brain simulates the tactile experience that it would elicit and this pleasurable, though largely unconscious, sensation influences your aesthetic judgement. The celebrated neuroscientist, Antonia Damasio, calls this process the “as-if loop”.
Visual scenes therefore differ in their capacity to elicit mirror neuron activity. When the scene provides ample cues for your brain to simulate appropriate, meaningful actions, in this way, you get an idea of what that scene is all about – its meaning to you, in terms of how you would interact with it. This is an implicit act of self-referencing, and it explains why perception – and also the appreciation of art – is always subjective.
The process of embodied simulation is thus thought to underlie the key emotional response to art. When we find ourselves captivated by something alluring, something of rare beauty, we may say that it moved us. Quite literally, it activates the brain’s system for action. For instance, if we consider Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, Prisoners, people often report feeling an activation of the muscles in their own body, the same muscles that are portrayed within the sculpture. One wonders, did Michelangelo know this, that his sculpture would produce the feeling of struggle in viewers and enhance the emotional experience?
This same motion-based principal applies to much larger, abstract “objects”, like architectural structures. Studies from an expanding research initiative, known as “neuroaesthetics,” show that the human mind finds certain shapes to be more attractive than others. The shapes we most prefer trigger more brain activity – in general, but also in regions associated with reward. Forms with sharp, irregular edges seem to be favoured less by the brain. In fact, forms like a downward facing ‘v’ have been shown to activate areas of the brain involved in the perception of threat. Instead, our brains like symmetry and shapes with gentle curves, supposedly because symmetrical, rounded curvature is a characteristic contour of healthy organic matter and living, moving creatures, meaning that they are biologically relevant to us and thus attract our attention.
A recent study showed that when contemplating beauty, structural properties that involve curvilinear contour (like rounded columns, dome shapes) exclusively activate the anterior cingulate cortex, a region strongly associated with emotional salience. Other research shows that people seem to prefer wide, open interiors more than closed ones because open spaces activate areas of the brain associated with visual motion and meaning (temporal lobes). Space to think, perhaps, or in the very least, space to simulate…
In the evolutionary sense, movement is good because without movement, we cannot fulfill our biological necessities which are out there in the world. Objects and form which evoke movement are therefore highly salient to the brain and perceiving motion, even on an unconscious level, thus carries with it the stamp of reward. Think of Jackson Pollock’s work. Though abstract, the marks on the canvas reflect visible traces of human, volitional movement. You can almost feel the bodily gestures that are recruited to create the imagery. These visual scenes reach into us and interact with us on a very primitive, life-to-life level.
The Special Case of the Home
As Mischa and I marveled at the homes along the shores of Lake Atitlan, I couldn’t help wondering if the experience would be the same had the buildings been commercial properties, office blocks? There is something about the home that is exceptionally evocative.
Louise Bourgeois, the French-American artist who was prolific in her exploration of themes related to hidden emotion, envisioned the body as house. Like our selves, the house both encompasses closed spaces – interior – and exterior spaces. The façade is visible to the outside world but inside, in these intimate, lived spaces, is the internal world. The home is a metaphor for our psyche, the conscious and the subconscious. Skin, the walls, a boundary. Doors and windows, closing and opening, like the behavior of our senses, allowing the external world to be made visible to us. Cupboards and draws, the storerooms of thoughts, memories, secrets.
We see in this way that symbols, like the house, are not arbitrary, especially when we regard them in the context of neuroaesthetics and embodied simulation. The home-as-bodily-self metaphor possesses an uncanny appropriateness arising from the way the brain intrinsically responds to shape, form and useful objects. The very process of perceiving evokes the body, a self-relational exercise. And when this process converges on lived spaces that in their very nature hold not just our bodies (chairs, couches, beds) but also our emotional desires and insecurities too (the attic of our dreams, the dark basement of our fears), the meaning is amplified. Admiring a home, it is as if the building is speaking to us, like a familiar stranger beckoning from the shore, questioning our prying eyes, all this just from the gesture of our gaze.
These houses seemed to have a place in fairytales. Perhaps it was the incongruity of architecture against the encroaching forest, or the sheer novelty of the designs, an attribute of objects that incites the reward/dopamine circuity as the novel entity gets encoded into memory. Some of these houses were just so picturesque, something of dreams. They teased reality, and in this sense, I imagine they evoke the brain’s instinctual play circuitries, where things are fun and delightful at the border-zone of reality.
I’m not sure this is what the ancient Mayan communities had in mind when they were contemplating the wonder of the lake and its surroundings…
The Appeal of Minimalist Design
A final note before we draw to an end. You have probably noticed that not only round and organic-like forms are deemed beautiful. Think about the East Asian architectural aesthetic which incorporates stark, minimalist and contrasting lines. Based on the work of Semir Zeki, one of the world’s leading experts in how the brain processes visual information, the aesthetic experience here may be explained – in part – by the principal “law” which determines how the brain deals with the visual signals it receives, i.e., the law of constancy. As the brain struggles to perceive the visual world, it is primarily concerned with the constant, essential features of a scene. Imagine how confusing things get when we factor in the continually changing light and natural movement of objects, like a branch of leaves swaying in the breeze and shimmering in the afternoon rays. The brain therefore makes it’s imperative to disregard all that is unnecessary for identifying the essence of the visual scene. When an object’s natural structure assists in this process, that is, when its form is simple, minimalist, Zen-like, this radically eases the brain’s workload and in neural terms, this is good. Calming, reassuring.
This is probably why sparse, minimalist architecture is often perceived to be aesthetically pleasing. Complex architecture may overwhelm the visual system.
There seems to be an exception to this general, ease-of-processing “rule” and it happens during the appreciation of art when no single meaning or interpretation of the work supersedes as “the best” interpretation. As the brain tries to find a single solution to the meaning conveyed by the piece of work (multiple simulations), the impossibility of one single solution leads to ambiguity. Mostly, the mind experiences ambiguity as aversive, but in art, this ‘work of the mind’ engages the brain and contributes to the emotional experience.
Zeki argues that when this ambiguous tug-of-war for meaning happens in the context of art, “it is not vagueness or uncertainty, but rather certainty, the certainty of different scenarios each one of which has equal validity with the others”. And in brain terms, certainty is good.
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