Evolution of the visual system is key to abstract art

Nov 17, 2008

Famous works of abstract art achieve popularity by using shapes that resonate with the neural mechanisms in the brain linked to visual information, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool has discovered.

Humans make aesthetic judgements about shapes and forms quickly and easily, preferring certain shapes to others, even in the absence of any narrative. Dr Richard Latto, from the University's Psychology department, has discovered that these shapes resonate with the processing properties of the human visual system, which is responsible for analysing what we have seen.

Dr Latto said: "Humans inherit a basic visual system through genetics. That system provides very selective information about the world around us. It has evolved to provide only the information that we need to survive - for example, we cannot see most electromagnetic radiation or follow the leg movement of a galloping horse.

"Of course our visual systems can be influenced by social factors, like fashion and the number of abstract images that we expose ourselves to, but evolution had given us some genetically determined responses to certain shapes and forms. In popular abstract works such as Matisse's The Snail (1963), Mondrian's Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1930), and Malevich's Supremus No. 50 (1915), the artists start with a blank canvas and arrange shapes and colours in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, using their own brain to monitor the effect.

"We like to look at the human body or parts of the body like the face and hands, stylised representations like stick figures and organic forms of the kind incorporated into the work of Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon. Certain landscapes and horizontal and vertical lines are also popular because they resonate with our visual systems, which have been tuned by evolution and experience to respond particularly to these biologically and socially important stimuli.

"We know that neurons in the brain need to be kept active to flourish and develop, so it is important for the visual system to be stimulated and sometimes pushed to the limit to function effectively. As with other adaptive behaviours, we have evolved a mechanism for encouraging this by rewarding ourselves with good feelings. Perhaps we enjoy looking at faces, landscapes and Mondrian's work because it is good for us and good for our brains."

Dr Latto added: "Artists were experimenting with abstract shapes long before scientists began analysing our nature of perception. Through observation or trial-and-error, artists have been identifying these aesthetic primitives - critical shapes and arrangements - and have indirectly defined the nature of our visual processes. In purely abstract painting, as with much music, form is all we have. Popular works have shown that essentially we like looking at what we are good at seeing."

Source: University of Liverpool

Explore further: Self-regulation intervention boosts school readiness of at-risk children, study shows

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Computer program can identify sketches

Sep 13, 2012

(Phys.org)—Computers are good at speed, numbers, and massive amounts of data, but understanding the content of a simple drawing is more difficult. Researchers at Brown and the Technical University of Berlin ...

Mathematics: First-ever image of a flat torus in 3D

Apr 26, 2012

Just as a terrestrial globe cannot be flattened without distorting the distances, it seemed impossible to visualize abstract mathematical objects called flat tori in ordinary three-dimensional space. However, ...

Recommended for you

Brains transform remote threats into anxiety

Nov 21, 2014

Modern life can feel defined by low-level anxiety swirling through society. Continual reports about terrorism and war. A struggle to stay on top of family finances and hold onto jobs. An onslaught of news ...

Mental disorders due to permanent stress

Nov 21, 2014

Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. The effects of permanent stress on the immune system are studied by the ...

Could there be a bright side to depression?

Nov 21, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A group of researchers studying the roots of depression has developed a test that leads them closer to the idea that depression may actually be an adaptation meant to help people cope with ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.