Are we hardwired for beauty? A recent Italian study suggests so. Researchers at the University of Parma showed fourteen test subjects with no experience in art theory original and distorted images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures and monitored their brain activity. The originals conformed to the Golden Ratio of 1.618 (the constant phi) which occurs when the ratio between the sum of two quantities and the larger of these constituent quantities is the same as the ratio between the larger and the smaller quantities.
The Golden ratio is found in nature in the proportions of spiral galaxies and seashells, tree branches and the bones that comprise human limbs . It was known to the Ancient Greeks (and was used in the design of the Parthenon, among other things), employed by renaissance painters (Leonard Da Vinci was obsessed with it), and is still taught to graphic artists as one of the foundations of good design.
Viewing the original images activated certain brain cells that the distorted images did not, including those in the insular cortex, which mediates emotions. Test subjects were also asked to judge how beautiful or ugly images were. The images that were said to be beautiful activated the right amygdala, which plays a key role in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotionally-charged events. These results indicate that aesthetic enjoyment is a combination of a hard-wired response triggered by phenomena that occur in nature and then mediated by an association with the viewer's emotional past.
Researchers were surprised to discover that minor modifications to the images led to major modifications in brain activity, but they also recognize that cultural conditioning may have played a part in the result, as Classical and Renaissance art are accepted as beautiful in Western cultures. "It would be interesting to propose a similar study across cultures to see whether these principles are universal or culture bound," said researcher Cinzia Di Dio.
These results will come as no surprise to fans of good design and may partially explain the attachment consumers feel to certain products that they praise as icons of functionality and style. Is it any surprise that the ratio of the sides of a fifth generation iPod is 1.67 and that of a pocket Moleskine is 1.57? Maybe there's more to the success of Apple's product than Steve Jobs' fabled "reality distortion field." Perhaps the savvy marketers at Modo & Modo intuited that the shape of a Moleskine triggers some emotional response and realized that they could further entice buyers by heightening this emotional connection through an association with great figures in literature. (Of course, there's also no denying that both these manufacturers make great products).
As for the universality of good design across cultures, consider the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, an aesthetic that is based upon the notions of impermanence and imperfection. Profoundly influenced by the Shinto and Buddhist traditions of that country and deeply rooted in nature, wabi-sabi informs the traditional tea ceremony as much as it does consumer electronics (e.g. black and metallic finishes). It is an entirely different aesthetic theory, but like the golden ratio, it finds its origins in patterns that are observed in nature. And maybe there's a lesson here. If the pleasure we derive from our technology is firmly rooted in what we observe in nature, and if we diminish nature to the point that it no longer nourishes our aesthetic and creative sensibilities, where does that leave us?