Neurodesign and Our Search for Beauty
Have you ever visited a place for the first time — a new city, restaurant or home — and felt like you just wanted to stay? And even if you couldn’t really place your finger on why it just seemed somewhat … harmonious?
Well, what are the mechanics behind these feelings? In other words: what really goes on behind these emotions in regards to our surroundings? Well according to the authors of Neurodesign, Isabelle and Katarina, we would first have to look at our perception of beauty.
What is Beauty?
What is beauty anyway? As we’ve all heard before, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But is this old saying true? Is our perception of beauty really determined by personal experiences, or are there certain factors that we all share that determine what we find beautiful?
Turns out, our perception of beauty is indeed influenced by various things: our minds, feelings, points of view, wishes and desires, preferences and judgments, culture, education, and even our expectations. These are all individual and personal, which differ from person to person. However, there are also universal criteria for what we find beautiful.
Seeking Balance: the Universal Factor
We can see how nature strives for balance in different fields of Science: In Chemistry, equations need to be balanced to satisfy the law of conservation of mass. Physics and Mathematics, require that equations and formulas have the same value on both sides (balance) of an equation. In Biology, homeostasis is the regulation of the stable condition of every living organism. We see this for example when our body strives for balance in our salt concentration and blood sugar level.
It is our nature to seek balance. We’re just simply wired this way. Our innate search for balance is one universal criterion we all share that influences our perception of beauty.
In Biology, there’s something called bilateral symmetry, which is basically mirror symmetry. We, humans, have it and so do animals, plants, and cells. Symmetry signifies life. Subconsciously, we equate symmetrical features to good genes. This has been vital to reproduction, hence, our survival.
Our innate preference for symmetry in human faces
has rubbed onto what we find attractive in our surroundings,
such as in architecture and in interiors.
Aesthetics is another way of finding balance. It is a branch of philosophy that explores the nature of art, beauty, and taste, with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It also studies how we feel about art — why we like some works and not others, and how art can affect our moods, beliefs, and attitude toward life. [ S ]
Aesthetics deals with how we perceive beauty. And this, once again, begs the question: What is beauty? The answer to the million dollar question, however unsatisfying it may be is this: Beauty has no standards.
The mind is so complex. It can bring about various emotions all at once, which, at times, can be paradoxical. Although there are no set standards for what beauty is, Neuroaesthetics is getting more and more clear on what goes on in the brain when we contemplate aesthetics or when we perceive beauty. Although it doesn’t take us a step closer to the answer, it can help us understand why beauty brings about such positive feelings within us. And that, in itself, may be the answer, however complex it may be.
Neuroaesthetics (Scientifically Speaking)
Neuroaesthetics studies what happens in the brain when we perceive aesthetics. An aesthetic experience consists of feelings, judgments, interpretation, sensory processing of an object’s character and a reaction.
The syncortex processes aesthetic information through specifically analyzing, for example, brightness, color, movement, faces, bodies, and landscapes. The sum of these categories determines whether we find a particular object beautiful or not.
The sum of these categories — processed by the syncortex —
determines whether we find a particular object beautiful or not.
Different reward systems in the brain are activated when we experience beauty. The striatum is one of those reward systems, and it is activated by images of beautiful faces, for example. More advanced reward systems can be triggered by the sight of, for example, a beautiful building.
In the syncortex, there are morphine-like receptions that process aesthetic information which seem to contribute to the enjoyment of beauty. But, we don’t experience beauty just through what we see. Beauty can be experienced through other senses, too. (We will get much deeper into that in another post.)
It’s important to note that our expectations and the existing information we have on a piece of object or composition (music) influence our experience and our perception of beauty, too. For example, just by knowing that the object in front of you is a thousands of years old, that in itself can influence your impression of it.
Now if that wasn’t complex enough, how we judge art is also heavily influenced by earlier memories and experiences.
“Our perception of our surroundings is therefore ever changing;
they aren’t constant. We have to consider different perspectives
when we create and design new environments.”
— Isabelle & Katarina, Neurodesign
Beauty as Medicine (The Whole Point)
As we’ve seen, our bodies react to what we see and hear. When we perceive something as beautiful, a calm reaction is triggered which makes us feel at ease. Art, or any piece of object or music that we dislike, on the other hand, brings about the opposite reaction — it causes discomfort and dis-ease.
How does this happen? Let’s look to Neuroscience for answers …
Let’s start with the positive reactions. These activate a part of the brain that is directly connected to the parasympathetic nervous system (or the PSNS), which slows down the heart rate, increases the intestinal and glandular activity, and relaxes the sphincter muscles. It’s also called the “rest and digest system.” [ S ]
The effects of the PSNS are advantageous to the health, and it’s in this state — the rest & digest system — that we would rather be. This basically means that positive surroundings have health-promoting effects.
In contrast, when we’re in an environment that causes us discomfort, the sympathetic nervous system (or the SNS) is triggered which causes a stress reaction. It stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response. When the SNS is activated, the heart rate and blood pressure increase, which is actually normal for short periods. However, if they last, the inflammation in the body increases, and in the longer run, they can damage cells and cause diseases.
surroundings that make us feel uncomfortable are damaging to our health,
while an environment that makes us feel good promotes wellbeing.
This post is based on what I’ve learned by studying Neurodesign, a book written by Swedish authors, Isabelle Sjövall and Katarina Gospic. Both have more than a decade’s experience in their respective fields where Isabelle is an interior designer and Katarina is a brain scientist.
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