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Biological basis of aesthetics

Patty A Hardy pathardy at athena.mit.edu
Tue Oct 1 11:25:56 EST 1991


>> In article <1991Sep30.011017.9280 at acsu.buffalo.edu> lammens at acsu.buffalo.edu (Joe Lammens) writes:
>> >I have the idea that aesthetics must have a biological basis, in the sense
>> >that something aesthetically pleasing evokes different neural activation
>> >patterns than something which is not. Is anything known about that?
>> 
>>> Look into the Golden Section.  Leonardo did some stuff with it. The
> greeks thought that the golden ratio was the most aesthetically
> pleasing ratio there was.
>
>Unfortunately, that opinion was due to their favour of numerology
>rather than anything we'd recognize as an aesthetic hypothesis.  Mind
>you, the "favour of numerology" represents a sort of aesthetics of
>math, doesn't it?

I'm not sure it was just favor of numerology. See Huntley's _The Divine
Proportion_ for an interesting discussion of this point.

The psychophysicist Fechner (?) ran some study which showed a preference
in his sample population for "golden rectangles" (where the sides reflect
the golden ratio) vs. sqares and double-squares.  Huntley notes that the
Golden Section shows up in *lots* of places, frequently in living forms, and
he develops an interesting argument to the effect that aesthetic pleasure
is based on abstraction and recognition of natural patterns in several
sensory modalities.  If so, maybe there _are_ neural activation patterns
associated with aesthetic pleasure...which, if the person could articulate
*what* was beautiful, would turn out to be a common feature shared by
a musical chord, flowers having a certain symmetry, a certain type of
landscape, a play of light and shadow on a wall at a particular hour, etc.

What may be "aesthetics of math" to the trained person may just look nice
and be "spiritually comforting" to the naive--many beautiful cathedrals were built during the middle ages according to various numerological formulae: see Nigel Pennick's _Sacred Geometry_ for details.


Pat Hardy
pathardy at athena.mit.edu



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