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The Neurology of Aesthetics [Preview]

How visual-processing systems shape our feelings about what we see

WHAT IS ART? Probably as many definitions 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 aesthetics analogous to the syntactic universals for languages proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

The answer may be yes. We suggest that universal “laws” of aesthetics may cut across not only cultural boundaries but across species boundaries as well. Can it be a coincidence that we find birds and butterflies attractive even though they evolved to appeal to other birds and butterflies, not to us? Bowerbirds produce elegant bachelor pads (bowers) that would probably elicit favorable reviews from Manhattan art critics—as long as you auctioned them at Sotheby’s and did not reveal that they were created by birdbrains.

In 1994, in a whimsical mood, we came up with a somewhat arbitrary list of “laws” of aesthetics, of which we will describe six: grouping, symmetry, hypernormal stimuli, peak shift, isolation and perceptual problem solving. For each law, we will explain what function it might serve and what neural machinery mediates it.

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