I’ve been reading the latest book by eminent neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and trying to get my head into the way of thinking of brain researchers. It’s a pop-science book. So it contains nothing technically or biochemically challenging.

A large section of the book is dedicated to why we like art, and particular works of art. Ramachandran’s nine laws of aesthetics look as though they are straight from the Bauhaus. At best they could claim to offer insights into visual literacy.

Classical, cream coloured 2-storey facade intersected by 4-storey metalic, meshed pyramid shape.

Ramachandran’s aesthetic laws relate to: grouping, contrast, isolation, perceptual problem solving, abhorrence of coincidences, orderliness, symmetry and metaphor. If the categories look old fashioned then there’s novelty in the way Ramachandran explains them.

It appears that much of what we know about human neural processes derives from the observation of abnormalities, as when certain brain functions are isolated due to genetic aberrations or strokes.

There’s a lot in the book about culture, as the supreme creation of collaborating minds, but on the other hand neuroscience is reluctant to move to culture as a device for explaining the way people think, and of art. It seems animal behaviour (ethology) and evolutionary biology provide the best vocabularies for explaining human thought.

I left out one of the nine laws of aesthetics in the list above. This is  the law of peak shift, and here there is something strange and interesting. According to Ramachandran, this law accounts for the animal (and human) propensity to respond to exaggeration, at least in the visual field.

A lab rat can be trained to respond to simple shapes. Researchers have devised a simple experiment. A rat is confronted by two painted shapes, an elongated rectangle and a square. If the rat moves towards the elongated rectangle it is rewarded with a piece of cheese. If it moves to the square then it gets no reward.

After a trial and error phase, as expected, the rat soon learns to go straight for the elongated rectangle every time. Now replace the square shape with an even longer elongated rectangle than the food rewarding shape. The rat will go for it, and with measurably greater vigour. There’s a tendency for the rat’s cognitive apparatus to assume that the longer the rectangle the greater the reward, even though there was nothing in the training phase to establish that rule.

The simple extrapolation from this and other experiments — plus some explanation in terms of neural wiring — is that when we animals get so used to a visual condition we regard it as normal. But then we become impressed, pleased with, allured by, or provoked by it’s exaggerated variant. At the very least our curiosity is aroused.

Presumably there’s a point at which the exaggeration no longer registers as such and the shape appears as a new class of object, or something entirely alien. In any case, according to Ramachandran, all nine laws kick in. So the lure of exaggeration is one of several factors in reading the environment.

I think this law of peak shift touches on notions of the so-called uncanny valley, and the putative realism of computer images. It also pertains to ideas of the grotesque — faces with inordinately large noses and ears attract our interest. Ramachandran writes about the popularity of caricatures of well-known people: politicians, entertainers and even our loved ones.

He doesn’t address this, but there’s also something to be said about animals as bearers of exaggerated human traits, zoomorphism, and anthropomorphised animals in cartoons and comics. The law also touches on metaphor and play: the child who claims to his mother he’s just seen a  carrot “as big as God.”

From Bauhaus to Rat-haus

Architecture has masterly control over exaggeration. Human inhabitants are accustomed to orthogonality, a world of right angles.  In the visual field these angles and lines appear to converge according to the conventions of perspective.

Exaggerating and distorting these vectors certainly produces an effect on the person negotiating such spaces, or perhaps a particular atmosphere or mood.

This post is illustrated with some images from my movement (rat-like) through Studio Libeskind’s recently opened Military History Museum extension in Dresden, an undoubtedly impressive example of architectural exaggeration. There’s much that is familiar in these spaces, not least the straightness of line and of course the classical contours of the original structure. But then you realise the floor is sloping, walls converge, and the rules of form and perspective are grossly exaggerated

— not to mention disaggregated, contrasted, isolated, coincidentally disordered, and asymmetrically metaphorical.

Small child being drawn away from display of misiles


  • Dondis, Donis A. 1973. A Primer of Visual Literacy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Ramachandran, V.S. 2011. The Tell-Tail Brain: Unlocking the Mysteries of Human Nature. London: William Heinemann.

Also see Obliquitous computing, Brain scans and creativityNeuroscience eclipses AI, and Superlatives.


  1. Yameng Guo says:

    The use of exaggeration in metaphor is also appears in fairy tales.In my world, the fairy tale characters are metaphors for me. When I was a child, my favorite fairy tale is snow white. I used to want to be a lady like snow white. Snow white means beautiful, charming and kind to me. So, Snow White becomes my idol. When I was crying, mum always said: “Crying baby is not beautiful, do you want to be Snow White?” However, things are different when we have more social experience. We may laugh at those naïve characters in fairy tale. Moreover, we may question the truth of fairy tales. Adults have a fierce debate that whether we should tell the truth to children, because there is a difference between fairy tale and real life. A part of them believe that children need to know more black sides of society. The other part of adults agrees that we should give children a beautiful dream.
    This debate is a long fight. However, if we look at this question from the inner side of fairy tale, which do not regard characters in fairy tales as normal person, but as a metaphor, we will find that fairy tales give us a real world.
    For the most time, characters in fairy tales are one-dimensional and exaggerated. This is why grown-ups always feel ridiculous of those characters. For instance, when we refer to Cinderella, the first thing we come into mind is she is a beautiful and poor girl. So, we describe a girl who is lucky to find her Prince Charming as Cinderella. Cinderella becomes a metaphor now. Although, the story may just tells us the beautiful side of this girl. There may be existed some shortcomings of Cinderella, which is she doesn’t do any efforts to change the condition but just waiting. However, does it matter? The characteristics are just exaggerated in fairy tales. Being Cinderella may be every little girl’s young dream. However, it is different when we have grown up. We may have ever waited for someone. However, when we have experienced periods of love, experiences tell us that that Cinderella is in just in fairy tale. Waiting is not a good choice.
    Although Cinderella’s love is so beautiful that many people may not believe this beautiful and perfect love could happened. But, how many children are misguided by the fairy tales? Are we all just waiting and waiting till we are old? My answer is NO. Just take my roommate for example, 3 girls, who are living in one apartment, all have one or more periods of love no matter before or now. All of us had read Cinderella when we were young. None of us has a love like Cinderella. In fact, as far as I am concerned, Cinderella never make us feel confused of love but give us a beautiful dream. It is just a metaphor stands for a sweet girl who get a beautiful and perfect love luckily.
    The reason why fairy tales can hardly mislead us is because they give us a real world indeed. It separate people’s characteristics into single metaphors, such as kind, generous, greedy, and wicked and so on. And then we may find that each character is a metaphor, which is different from normal person who are so complex. The reason why the character is simple is based on the group of audience. When fairy tale authors facing with children, they want their stories can be easily to read, because children’s learning ability is limited when they are reading fairy tales. Therefore, simple character with simple characteristics can easily tell children what is right or wrong. We should be kind and generous but greedy and wicked. Trough this way, children may learn these characteristics. They may never follows one person, because there are thousands characters.
    Most children have read thousands of fairy tales. They learned what is right and wrong. In subconsciousness, they create a good person who contains all of the good qualities and a bad person who contains all of the bad qualities. In addition, they can also tell what is right or wrong when they meet a person in real word. Therefore, when they are growing they can figure out that multi-dimensional person is assembled by many one-dimensional people. Like Cinderella’s waiting love, reading Cinderella make us know that Cinderella is kind so she get her happy life. However, reading Forest Bride make us know that we should do efforts to chase true love. After reading these two stories, be kind and do great efforts is what we have learned. This conclusion can solve the problem I referred above, which is few of us is misguided by fairy tales. We can combine information from fairy tales. In the end, one-dimensional characters in fairy tales turn to be multi-dimensional person in real world.
    If you think reading fairy tales for adults is too ridiculous, trying to regard each character as a metaphor. Fairy tales just tell children a real world in children’s way.

    1. koh kang li says:

      The opposite to exaggeration would certainly be: ‘subtlety’. In the creation of our living environment it may be a overwhelming discovery of a subtle effect employed with intention that demonstrates a higher mastery in Art. which … may be difficult to prove if we experiment with mice..

      1. Indeed. Incremental, stepwise adjustments: I think the theories try to accommodate that kind of subtlety. But it’s not the same as art. …

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