The challenges of neuroaesthetics

4 March 2016 / Tim Holmes

Over the past few weeks I’ve been delivering a series of lunchtime seminars at Coley Porter Bell, a London brand design agency which is part of Ogilvy & Mather and WPP. The sessions have covered a range to topics including visual perception, attention and the application of neuroscience to research on consumer behaviour and cognition. As part of the run-up to our joint presentation on neuro-aesthetics and commercial design at the Dubai Lynx International Festival of Creativity next week I also took the opportunity to talk with them about the scientific study of aesthetics, something I have been involved with since I started my PhD back in 2006. After all, it’s not every day that I get to discuss aesthetics with a group of people who are passionately invested in creating beauty on a daily basis and in fact whose very livelihood might depend on it. So, given that I am about to fly to Dubai to talk about this very topic, I thought I’d use this opportunity to say a little more about empirical and neuro-aesthetics, and why interest in the topic seems to be growing.

About 12 months in to my PhD I nervously presented my first, and ugliest, poster at the European Conference on Visual Perception 2007 which described some early results obtained using a new methodology to explore the much debated preference for the Golden Ratio (1:1.618) in rectangles. In doing so I joined a field of research which dates back to Gustav Fechner’s original (1876) investigation of the very same question. I’m not going engage in a review of the literature on the Golden Ratio because others like Green and Markowsky have already done a much more thorough job than I could hope to achieve in this blog. Instead I’ll just summarise the overall results by saying that evidence for a reliable effect on aesthetic evaluation is mixed and a lot of the results rely on methodological constraints or statistical analyses that crumble with a little interrogation! Now this is not to say that, used in the right context, it cannot contribute to the beauty of a design. If we follow the Dennis Dutton line of enquiry our exposure to natural occurrences of the Golden Ratio such as in the logarithmic spiral of many shells, which have in turn been given as gifts and used throughout history for their decorative qualities, would suggest that we might have an innate, or at least evolved, preference for them. But for all my work with evolutionary algorithms and modelling, I’m not an evolutionary psychologist and so I need some stronger evidence than this. There certainly are plenty of examples from the world of design where the Golden Ratio has been applied successfully, and I discuss one of them in my talk in Dubai, but the success of those designs can rarely be attributed to the presence of the ratio because the ratio is merely one aspect of the design, and if there’s one thing we DO know about visual perception, it’s that context can change everything!

Top left to bottom right: We perceive the middle character as ’13’ or ‘B’ depending on whether we read top to bottom or left to right. In the Ebbinghaus illusion, the two grey dots are the same size but are perceived to be different sizes because of the relative size of the circles surrounding them. On the classic chequerboard illusion, the tiles marked A and B are actually exactly the same shade of grey, but the structure of the pattern combined with our understanding of how the shade from the green cylinder should affect the appearance of tile B makes it appear to lighter than A.

This issue of context is a thorny one for empirical aesthetics, because the attempts to show causality in studies on the Golden Ratio, symmetry and even colour, requires the control of other potentially confounding factors and so often results in the removal of context. After all, no one can seriously suggest that looking at the Golden Ratio in rectangles, triangles, or line-bisections, is the same as seeing it in biology, architecture or even web-design. This context contributes to, and alters, the perception of “the whole”, something the Gestalt movement of the early 20th century was deeply concerned with.   Their rules of for visual perception are replicable across visual stimuli and the automaticity of their application in visual perception illustrates the power of subconscious processing that drives much of human behaviour. In the Dubai talk I will highlight several examples of how these rules can be applied by designers with great effect, but for now here are some nice examples of the Gestalt laws of Perception in action and if you want to dig deeper into Gestalt thinking there are some great resources here and here.

Now, this thing about perception of “the whole” leads us back to the methods of much empirical work on aesthetics, because until recently it has tended to focus on the stimulus rather than the response, and this might in part be due to the challenges associated with even articulating what that response feels like. If you’re from a commercial design or marketing background you might recognise this difficulty, because market researchers have been dealing with something similar for years, and I think it’s no coincidence that the increased interest in neuro-aesthetics is keeping pace with that in so called neuro-marketing. After all, the art world certainly support the assumption that beauty pays, and more recent research, like that of Ed Vessel and colleagues that I will mention in my talk, provides clear evidence of an association between the act of perceiving beauty and the reward systems in the brain. As a scientist this is much more like the evidence I need for an innate preference for good design and certainly supports the assertion that we are motivated to seek out that which is aesthetically pleasing. Towards the end of my PhD I identified a subconscious oculomotor (eye-movement) signature  which seems to predict these aesthetic preferences, even in the absence of any specific task guidance suggesting that even when we’re not instructed to evaluate beauty we are still engaged in that process. If this is indeed the case, then designers have the power to influence attention and decision making far beyond the often rather crude application of standout, or salience as we vision scientists tend to call it. In the competition for attention at the point of sale, this is something which has dominated a lot of commercial design and is clearly only part of the story.

In the talk at Dubai Lynx, Vicky Bullen, the CEO of Coley Porter Bell, and I will talk through some examples of how this understanding of visual perception, attention and the neuroscience of aesthetics can be used in the evaluation of good design. I won’t pretend we always agreed on some of those evaluations, and that’s not really a surprise because we come from very different disciplines and the true Gestalt of perception includes both the viewer and the stimulus in that “whole” because perception is influenced by the learning and associations we develop throughout our life. But here’s the thing, if the methodologies of neuroscience like fMRI, EEG and eye-tracking are beginning to provide evidence for common responses to aesthetically pleasing images, they can also be integrated into the design process to validate, and yes, sometimes even reject, the designer’s vision, not necessarily for its artistry because I think we’re still a long way from that, but certainly for its potential success in the market place, and this is why we wanted to share our process at the International Festival of Creativity.

If you’re coming to Dubai, look out for Vicky and me and say hello. I will no doubt be tweeting about some of the other great looking talks next week, so if you want to know more or continue this discussion, hit me up on Twitter @DrTimHolmes.

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