Art, Science, and Ads


Every human culture has developed some kind of art, and scientists puzzling over art’s appeal are proposing a neuroscience-based explanation. Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of San Diego’s Center for Brain and Cognition, along with colleage William Hirstein, some years ago proposed eight laws of artistic experience:

1. The “peak shift principle” makes exaggerated elements attractive
2. Isolating a single cue helps to focus attention
3. Perceptual grouping makes objects stand out from background
4. Contrast is reinforcing
5. Perceptual “problem solving” is also reinforcing
6. Unique vantage points are suspect
7. Visual “puns” or metaphors enhance art
8. Symmetry is attractive

We aren’t going to go through each of these in detail, but there’s a bit more explanation in Cracking the Code of Art’s Allure. The current Scientific American Mind has a good illustrated article, The Neurology of Aesthetics.

The peak shift concept is explained by Ivar Hagendoorn in Dance, Perception, Aesthetic Experience & the Brain:

The main law or aesthetic principle, according to Ramachandran and Hirstein, is what they call a peak-shift effect. By accentuating traits that are otherwise considered to be distinctive, perception can be intensified. What are characteristic features of women? Breasts, hips, and waists. And thus, from Indian art to cartoons, manga and computer games such as Tombraider, we find women with large breasts, tight waists and pronounced hips. The visual system immediately recognizes these features as belonging to a woman and, because of the exaggeration, gives off a quicker and stronger than usual response.

Hagendoorn could have added Mattel’s long-running Barbie doll product to his list of feminine peak shifting; sales of the well-endowed doll have slipped a bit lately, but overall the product line has had a run unprecedented in the toy industry.

Peak shift also explains why caricatures work so well – by exaggerating a few unique traits from the subject’s face, the caricaturist can create a readily identifiable portrait with just a few strokes of a pencil. Peak shift is exploited by advertisers in any number of ways, from exploiting the appeal of extra-busty beer babes to more subtle exaggerations in product representations.

Going in the opposite direction of peak shift, some of the other appeal of art occurs when the viewer has to assemble a whole image from clues, involving the “isolation” and “perceptual problem solving” laws. When one’s brain analyzes an image and finds a hidden picture, for example, there’s enjoyment both in the search process and the eventual solution. The explanation provided by Ramachandran in the Mind article is that evolution has programmed our brains to look for predators and prey – a partial glimpse of an object of interests cues us to keep looking, as well as providing an incentive to assemble the whole image when we have seen enough to do so. In essence, the process is a series of “ahas”, culminating in the final “aha!” of complete recognition. (Want to give your brain a few “aha” stimuli? Check out Optical Illusions and Other Phenomena.)

This reminds us of the “aha” phenomenon we discussed in Marketing to the Infovore. In that post, we cited the long-running and wildly successful ad campaign employed by Absolut Vodka as an example of ads that appealed to our brain’s desire to acquire information. That same campaign ties neatly into several of Ramachandran’s key principles for effective art. The illustrations, in many cases, are mere outlines of the product’s distinctive bottle (isolation), and often require the viewer to study the ad for a second to see the pattern emerge (perceptual problem solving). The ads often are visual puns of some sort, as well. Before the term “neuromarketing” had been coined, the Absolut ad designers had developed a long-running campaign well-targeted to the way the human brain processes information. Whether or not the viewer was a vodka drinker, the nature of the ads made them very difficult to flip past without at least a quick look. We still mourn the passing of that campaign, though, even campaigns with good neuroscience behind them (not to mention products like Barbie) may lose impact over time.

For more reading on neuroscience and art, check PsyArt and Neuroesthetics.

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