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.
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.
- 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.