Neuroaesthetics and Basic Qualities that Evoke Natural Aesthetic Reactions

Using brain scans, neuroscientists such as Semi Zeki of University College London and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran of University of California at San Diego have shown that much of our aesthetic perception of art is natural emotional reaction to basic sensory stimuli. Whether viewed on their own or incorporated into art or the physical world, many simple, basic qualities and designs evoke natural psychological, aesthetic and even physical reactions in people.

The reactions we have to certain colors, angles and textures are in part hard wired into our brains, though they can be honed and altered with experience, education and culture. Artists use these natural emotional inducing qualities to to help express their artistic ideas and create aesthetic feelings. A landscape painter may use warm colors and smooth lines to naturally evoke pleasant and serene reactions, while a horror film director or propagandist will use bold colors and jagged lines to excite the senses and raise the blood pressure.

The following looks at just several of these qualities and our responses, When you think about the following examples, you will realize that many of these reactions have practical uses, uses that helped us survive as a species and live effective lives today.


Symmetry and Balance


Humans naturally get a pleasing reaction from symmetrical and balanced objects in nature and designs in art. We judge the health and beauty of other humans by symmetry. The standard beautiful face and healthy young body is symmetrical. On the flip side, someone with a hunchback, limp or disfigured limb is seen as injured or diseased.

Artists commonly use symmetry and balance to depict beauty and elicit a pleasurable, serene response in viewers. An artist who wants to express disorder, violence and chaos may remove symmetry and balance. They may leave things out of place, crooked and messy. Movie monsters are commonly depicted as deformed and unbalaced. Humans naturally get a negative even repulsed reaction from this.

This hard wired attraction to symmetry and distaste of out of balance was important to our survival as a species, as mating with youthful healthy people help ensure the survival of the species.

Movie monsters, such as the vampire in 1922's Nosferatu, are depicted as deformed and  unbalaced.  Humans naturally get a negative even repulsed reaction from this.

Movie monsters, such as the vampire in 1922’s Nosferatu, are depicted as deformed and unbalaced. Humans naturally get a negative even repulsed reaction from this.

Out of place. Both in art and in the physical world, and even at a dining room table, humans automatically notice things that are out of place. This not only catches our attention in art, but is necessary for our survival as a species. Our ancient in the wild selves wouldn’t have survived long if they didn’t know things abnormal or seemingly out of place.

Mysteries and solving mysteries

Humans are distressed or intrigued by ambiguous scenes, juxtaposition of seeming unrelated things, mysteries and puzzles in art and in the physical. Our initial psychological response towards mysteries, as is often used in art, is natural. As is our following trying to figure out what is the meaning in mysterious scenes and in the relationship between juxtaposed objects. Emotionally responding to then feeling psychologically and intellectually compelled to solve mysteries is natural to humans, as is the pleasurable response we get when we feel we’ve solved the mystery. There’s a reason why so many people get enjoyment out of television mysteries, jigsaw and crossword puzzles– at least when, in the end, the mystery is solved or the puzzle finished. If the puzzle is never finished, or the ‘who done it’ in the Murder She Wrote is not given or is otherwise unsatisfactory (‘That was so contrived with so many illogical plot turns and missing details that no one in the audience could have figured it out. In a proper mystery, the audience has to at least have a chance to logically figure it out.’), then the emotional response is naturally not pleasurable.

This mirrors our ancient days when humans in the wild were at first distressed or intrigued by a mystery then glad when it was solved.

In fact, humans enjoy solving a mystery more than knowing the answer right away. The final pleasure is heightened when it is preceded mystery and mental problem solving effort.

Meaning and Identification

People naturally like scenes, situations and art where they know what is the meaning and identity, as opposed to situations art where the meaning (if there is one) is a complete mystery. People often have viscerally negative reactions to abstract art, because they don’t understand it. They don’t know what it is supposed to mean, they don’t see identifiable objects. They want it to be like ‘normal’ art where there is a boat or a house or animal or mountains.

People who are artists or otherwise more educated about art, or more naturally open minded, tend to like abstract art more, because they understand it more. With more exposure and longer viewing of an abstract painting, people tend to like the paintings more. It’s their initial, gut reaction that is most negative and visceral.

This is a natural reaction in humans throughout our history, as all humans have never liked, or at least are highly intrigued, when faced with a situation where they have no idea what is going on. They want concrete answers and identities. It’s important to survival.


Lack of Contrast: Monet painting of fog

Lack of Contrast: Monet painting of fog

Related to mystery and identification, people naturally like good contrast and a have a negative or intrigued reaction to lack of contrast. This is because good contrast means we can identify things, and bad contrast makes identification harder to impossible. Fog and dark hide mask identity. There is a reason that murder mysteries and horror movies often involve fog and dark. The hidden things scare us, literally raises our blood pressures. When the fog or dark is removed and a pretty woman is revealed, there is a pleasing, relaxing reaction.

Unrealistic exaggerations


UCSD Professor Rachandran says that humans are psychologically influenced by unrealistic exaggerations. Take size as one example. To humans, the larger the wolf or alligator or gorilla or bear or mountain, the more intimidating and awesome. The larger man is assumed to be the more powerful. Logically, you know you will likely someday see a house and bear and spider bigger than you’ve seen before. This mindset extends beyond the bounds of reality. In the extremes, we get impossible super powerful and super sized characters like Hercules, Superman and the Incredible Hulk. If a gorilla is intimidating due to its size and strength, then King Kong is that much more intimidating.

This helps explain our psychological reactions to the exaggerated in art, dreams and day dreams.

Identifying objects through basic qualities

Detail of Paul Cezanne painting of fruit

Detail of Paul Cezanne painting of fruit

Professor Zeki says humans naturally identify objects by basic, essential qualities. As objects such as trees, apples and dogs each vary to degree from specimen to specimen (two apples will differ in tone, shape and/or size), we must be be able to identify them by these basic qualities, such as general color, general shape, general size and weight. Many artists reduce the subjects of their art into the bare essentials that allow the viewers to recognize what it is. The ability to identify objects by general key qualities is essential to our survival since our ancient days, as bananas, for example, don’t come in the exact same sizes, shapes and tones and we need to identify what objects are edible.

Impressions, such as this 1913 painting The Parasol Karl Albert Buerhr, tried to show how light played on objects and how the human eye natural saw things. We recognize it as a person in a wooded and bushes area.

Impression, such as this 1913 painting The Parasol Karl Albert Buerhr, tried to show how light played on objects and how the human eye natural saw things. We recognize it as a person in a wooded and bushes area.

Amedeo Modigliani portrait of a woman

Amedeo Modigliani painting that you recognize as a woman


The strange and new

Things that are brand new and strange to your eyes, such as an albino squirrel in your back yard or a bizarre animal at the zoo, catch your attention and imagination and literally raises your blood pressure. This response is important as current and ancient caveman selves wouldn’t have survived long if they didn’t notice and ponder about new and strange things. Artists regularly use bold radical designs and odd objects to catch the imagination of viewers and focus attention. Experiencing the new is often a major part of experiencing the sublime.


Humans have psychological reactions to colors, both due to nature and culture. Bright red and yellow naturally stimulate the senses and raise blood pressure, while blue is calming. Brown is earthy in both the figurative and sometimes literal sense, while green is naturally and culturally associated with nature.

People have naturally favorite colors. It is often inborn and physiological. Someone may not know why blue is his favorite color, he just knows that it is. The color is pleasing over other colors. He won’t know why brown or green isn’t his favorite favorite, it just isn’t.

Women tend to have better red/green color vision than men, so it should not be of surprise that women far more commonly than men pick green as a favorite color. The green will appear more vibrant to the average woman than the average man.

* * * *

This topic leads to significant philosophical questions. Many people believe the universe ‘must’ be balanced and orderly, and can’t believe nature is random or chaotic. Yet, these beliefs may merely be the product of inborn biological biases. Inborn biases and natural aesthetic and emotional responses to simple stimuli lead humans to false conclusions all the time, on a daily basis. Merely look at visual illusions, magic tricks, political propaganda and television advertising.  As far as identifying the nature and meaning of the universe, that you have a psychological compulsion to keep your work desk tidy and purple is the color most pleasing to your eyes is neither here nor there.  I don’t care if my desk is messy and my favorite color is blue.

. . . .





. . ..