Knud Thomsen

Beauty and Art Arise in the Brains of Beholders

Perceiving is an active process, it unfolds over time. Beginning at a starting fixation the eyes and the attention of a spectator scan over a visual display until enough data for a satisfactory interpretation of the percept are collected. Modulated by the current context, especially by the expectations of the observer, the process comes to a halt and the perception is concluded with an emotional tag for the total outcome of the action. This means not only the observed different features and the whole of the percept are important but sometimes even more so the way the operation went. Positive emotions usually result from a 'pleasant' content and a successful process, whereas better than expected progress gives rise to special good feelings. Beauty would be but one of the possible emotional signals of this primarily self-monitoring process, which is claimed to underpin all mental activity, conscious and unconscious.

In a recent contribution a brave attempt was made to explain the beauty in art with some psychophysical results, peak shift and grouping being the purported most prominent contributing factors (Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1999). "Eight laws of artistic experience" were formulated, which were found lacking by a number of prominent experts for several, partly diverse, reasons (Commentaries on Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1999).

In the following it shall be argued that the fundamental flaw of that proposed approach is the lack of taking any temporal dimension seriously into account. Most of its criticism shares the same deficit, i.e. neglecting the process character of perception.

This paper sketches briefly a simple model, which brings together long known and brand new experimental findings with views on beauty and art expressed from very different camps, recently as well as in ancient times. It is not intended as a tiny watertight brick in a well established paradigm but rather as an inevitably somewhat speculative thought-provoking outline of a novel comprehensive perspective.

Behavior in Packets

People, when shown a picture of the well known bust of Nefertiti, scan the display repeatedly, each time with more or less the same well defined succession of saccades focusing on distinct features, one after the other (Noton and Stark, 1971). The process takes several seconds on average, the stepping stones for the path of the eyes like nose and ear or a broken corner are the places in the display which carry most information. With a smaller picture, when there is no need for saccades, attention is still moved along a similar trail. Tactile exploration with closed eyes follows the same optimal pattern with the fingers tracing a path so that many points with different and big curvatures are touched (Roland, 1985).

It looks like a coarse total impression and a first analysis of features influence the direction of the next step (Noton and Stark, 1971). There is no doubt, some evaluation of the sensory data takes place already during the harvesting phase. Massive neural connections from "higher" to "lower" sensory brain areas and the well established fact of "top down" influence of higher centers on lower input stages, which work "bottom up", fit to this view; these circuits are also engaged during memory retrieval (Tomita, 1999).

This does not interfere but could interweave nicely with what is known about the principal organization of vision in primates. There are two major streams of data processing in the visual system, one being dedicated to what we are seeing, the other more to where we are seeing it (Wilson, 1993).

The process outlined below depicts "perception as an activity that takes places over time, - time during which the anticipatory schemata of the perceiver can come to terms with the information offered by the environment ", just as Ulric Neisser claimed (Neisser, 1976). An attempt is made to underpin such a proposal by providing some "technical design" rationale.

Whether it was just a glimpse or in depth going scrutinizing, an observation in total or a sub-step comes to an end when the spectator decides that she has seen enough. When looking at pictures and while reading a text, more time is spent on more 'difficult' parts (Noton and Stark, 1971). The perception process thus appears to be a kind of iterative data harvesting; if undisturbed it continues until some threshold for a satisfactory impression is reached.

Exploratory behavior can thus be divided into small foraging portions the end of which is well defined with the decision that an active search is concluded. Obviously, a new starting point can then be set as the next event thereafter, with which a new action is triggered. (Observing) behavior would then consist of the continuous stream of such interlocking packets.

The decision when to determine a search would be based on the total context, on all, not only the directly relevant, information available and concurrently active.

In normal life just a small minority of all observations would call for an active conscious effort with a decision taken explicitly at its end. Assuming a data structure with schemata the process of data collection and its determination can run autonomously: one feature highlights a whole schema and all still open slots. When a slot is filled the corresponding data collecting can be stopped; the evidence seeking for the hypothesis that the anticipated part or schema is the right one, is successfully brought to an end.

Given the vast hierarchy and flexibility of schemata that humans have at their disposal, several nested loops most probably run in parallel. We hold goals and sub goals, an activity is always performed with only the highest relevant identification being conscious (Vallacher and Wegner, 1987).

Essential is that a self-monitoring process would in any case check how well incoming data fit with the relevant expectations.

On one hand, a loop would be terminated when an expected feature fills a slot. On the other hand, if an expectation cannot be met a kind of 'reset' would be triggered, focusing (conscious) attention to the nonconformance. Any deviation from a well established expectation (norm, script, template) catches our attention (Kahnemann and Miller, 1986).

After such a startling point the sequence of (foraging) loops would continue, probably with another schema anticipation (Selz, 1922).

All ongoing activity always also forms part of the background for further sensory input (Ellis, 1999). Emotions would at one and the same time be the output of the (self-) monitoring and also set the stage for subsequent activities (Carver and Scheier, 1990; Dörner and Stäudel, 1990). With such fundamental processes running in full circles the stipulation of start and endpoints or causal dependencies is somewhat arbitrary.

When we focus our attention on an explicit object, like the glasses that we are looking for, it is obvious, enough information has been gathered when the glasses are found; not much more of background has to contribute to that decision. Depending on the situation we just might need the glasses more or less urgently.

If we find us in some unknown landscape or in front of an artefact it will largely depend on our background what the situation means to us, whether we find the view pretty or enjoy it as a piece of art; - the display might in the extreme only be recognizable as such by somebody initiated. It is claimed that these two cases are very alike in principle.

A real mountain view as well as a painting of a waterfall certainly causes different associations and emotions in passionate hikers, habitants of flat and arid areas or in knowledgeable art spectators trained on exhibitions of classic or modern art.

Beauty and art have their origin in the mind of humans, in our reaction to a stimulus (Gombrich, 1978).

How much we are pleased now with what we are seeing, with the total perception, thus depends to a good deal on background, based on our principal sensory, biological and physical possibilities at disposal and on cognitive and learned components accumulated over the whole life of the individual so far. Indeed, the association of well-being with certain percepts could be traced back over millennia as heritage in a certain culture. For more directly pleasant percepts like food the trace in our body and along our physiology even goes back the evolutionary tree.

The same holds true for the whole proposed organization principle of (exploratory) behavior in cycles of data collection, data analysis and subsequent further expectation-guided harvesting including some success-monitoring. A first point of occurrence on the evolution tree could be where emotion is claimed to come into play, somewhere with the emergence of reptiles (Cabanac,1999). Even lower animals start to feed or search for food when they are hungry.

To guide the perception process the (self-)monitoring of how we are making progress in the data acquisition is most important. It is rather independent of the content; something deemed pretty when seen in the right staging might be hard and bad to see in other cases whereas we can have a perfect clear view of a horrible or not understandable scene.

The total feeling would in every case be different, depending on the combination of all impressions, inclinations, premonitions.... at the time in question. The claim is that we can experience only one feeling at one instant and that process feed back makes a most important contribution to our emotions.

In any case, whatever the details, if the whole layout has to be of evolutionary benefit, bringing an activity to an end successfully, definitely should give some rewarding pleasure. In fact, a tight link of success and a strong associated positive feeling seems natural to expect. To be most efficient and effective any evaluation mechanism should try to (re)act already when first signs of a probable outcome become available. Furthermore, the results of success monitoring would be the obvious signal to modulate transfer of any data into memory.

In a bootstrapping process 'pleasant' things and concepts thus are grounded and have acquired their meaning over a wide range of time spans where the pleasantness of one special situation got eventually transferred to a whole set with many associated objects, activities, occasions and circumstances.

Thus the observed relativity of beauty (and art) could be attributed to differences in the predispositions and histories of individuals and societies. Biological evolution provides the basis and a frame within which such a development can take place.

Most artists and philosophers may not be very aware of this because it was all too easy to throw away the ladder (e.g. leave out time-perspectives) after having climbed to the top (Wittgenstein, 1984).

Not only at the end with the successful filling of the last slot in a schema self-monitoring would help to direct the (foraging) activity, in this case to stop or redirect it, but also during the search itself it would certainly be advantageous to keep track of the progress. This can be understood as the working of a meta-loop, realized via associated (sub-)slots for the expected progress. The accumulation of (expected) supporting correlations would add to the success.

When nothing is found after a long period of searching, current activity has at least to be reevaluated.

In this process also surprises are possible; there can be "jumps" in the flow of the progress. The expectation excited for one frame is finally "discharged" in a different one. This is claimed to be the natural vantage point for a theory on the working of jokes and creativity explaining a good deal of famous observations (Koestler, 1981; Freud, 1985). A second look reveals a new picture (Thomsen, 200?).

Expectation can (be made to) accumulate; this means the difference between a nicely wrapped gift and an informally handed present. If success occurs after some struggle, it is even more rewarding as every mountain climber would confirm. Relieve is great when we were looking for the glasses desperately. The intensity of the affective reaction to an event correlates with our perception of its abnormality (Kahnemann and Miller, 1986).

Even if progress is not faster than expected, the search might be pleasant in itself while it is still ongoing, - with the successful conclusion of (maybe not really expected) sub-steps.

Art as Special Playground for the Senses and the Mind

In the following examples of selected characteristics that displays can show; in the light of the above they might cause "extra good feelings" of beauty when being looked at:


gives pleasure because expectations excited mutually by different parts of the whole and in interplay with the whole are all fulfilled


expectations and schemata from one part nicely fit also to another

proportions according to the golden section

the schema of a ratio can be brought to bear more than once

fractals / self similar shapes and textures

very similar to what we observed concerning harmony, symmetry and the golden section: a schema fits repeatedly, it fits data in more places or respects than what could be expected first hand


for the above reasons also a repeated feature might be nice to look at, especially when the whole arrangement as a pattern fills its frame in a somehow apt way


clear cut data like in a cartoon excite clear and simple schemata and can be filled in a well defined way, progress in this case is easy, - in contrast to a messy and chaotic input which might be disturbing; with evidence for a feature to be accumulated, threshold would be reached earlier in a display with simplified features reduced to the essential


with nothing special, like no special vantage point, prototypes, well established from experience and approximating ideals, can explain the data; no big effort needed, some type of harmony

The effects of all features listed up to here can be summarized as allowing for very economic data processing. Slots are filled efficiently, more expectations can be met with less than foreseen schemata and with little struggle; progress occurs faster than expected.

Actually, also the next two points "exaggeration" and "deviations from average", seemingly opposite to "average", can be understood from this perspective.

deviations from average "in a nice way"

expectations can be met in a better than expected way, i.e. a (secondary) expectation can be met specially good when a feature deviates in the right, in a "nice" manner, strengthening the evidence or hinting to some other 'positive' feature; this can involve additional schemata, the filling of which causes additional pleasure (Perrett, 1994)

exaggeration, originality

an overly expressed feature might be most easily detected, similar to what has been said under "simplicity" and to climbing a mountain, some unusually strong expectation would give extra pleasure

contrast, variety

as we soon get used to and bored with something unchanging, some variation, contrast and novel combinations cause new attention and maybe renewed pleasure

unexplained, hinted rest

with no urgent press to finish something a display might be entertaining when it allows or even asks for repeated cycles of contemplation like a riddle which does not yield at the first attempt; here I would place the joy of looking at a veiled dancer. To leave out something can indeed heighten the impression (Gombrich, 1978). When nothing more is available, an expectation alone just rekindled every now and then but without much supporting facts can cause pleasure, at least for receptive personalities

room left

schemata need not always be filled completely; as above, playful joy would be caused by something which does not prescribe its interpretation in every detail but leaves freedom for several different ways of seeing it, each way prompting a somewhat different schema each exciting on its own account

These last points could be maybe comprised under the heading of inspiration, we enjoy to see new possibilities and opportunities open up in front of our eyes.

Pleasant enough, this list could also have been compiled by primarily and naively collecting statements how people have defined the essence of art and beauty over quite a few centuries.

Not unexpected, art and beauty appear to be the result of at first sight quite contradictory characteristics; the unifying point being the more than standard pleasure while perceiving with a strong background component.

Art would be special in the sense that it provides in a way peculiar and optimized objects and occasions, "a dancing floor" for our senses and mind, which leads to specially moving and deep experiences. This goes far beyond a simple notion of "pretty" and also surpasses and encompasses Gestalt laws. It is clearly only of secondary importance whether a piece of art aims to represent something. An extension to the directly given input may even be so "good " that it determines what is perceived.

There are limits to interpretation and translation. Although several senses can be addressed by one and the same work of art, it is an absurd demand to ask a painter to sing what he wants to say.

Art always is made for somebody, if for nobody else than for the person who plays for his own fun. Art can "lift somebody's spirit" or evoke other strong emotions. Feelings, seen primarily as feed back, cannot be induced by appellation but a spectator can be guided and she can be made to experience herself the same feeling as the author felt, or, more generally, the emotions that the artist intended.

In any case a distinct world of art with a reduced pressure for profane utility, somewhat detached from the everyday reality, would help to establish a relaxed and receptive attitude of the beholder. Framing the display or event or whatever it may be in a suitable presentation definitely contributes to bias the audience for the expectation of "art". It dims distracting impressions and activities.

Thinking of literature, the experience of art can include a big portion of high level processes and imagination, without much direct stimulation by low level sensory input features.

The enlisted attributes do of course not exclude one another, a true piece of art might or should show more than just one; especially the inspiring and creative aspects could be defined as a sign of quality accompanying every possible combination of other features.

Stressing the need for "consistency" (of an observation), beauty could well be defined as a form of truth; beauty would be "a manifestation of The Good, indirectly perceived together with The Truth" (Weizsäcker, 1983). The link is obvious as consistency is close to the best that we can ask models to show, inconsistencies being the landmarks where we have to think of our further direction and look for a new hypothesis (Popper, 1984). It has been demanded that a theory of truth has to be true self-referentially (Skirkbekk, 1977); this is nothing but harmony in philosophical disguise.

Mathematical proofs and whole theories can rightly be called beautiful. While both art and science strive for authenticity and consistency to produce something which is "true", a major difference lies in the frame and the building blocks used (Thomsen, 200?). Science undertakes to 'understand' the world, to derive testable laws and theories and it must adhere to its stringent methodological rules (POPA, 1999); in the end it has to ask for the all-embracing theory of everything. Art is proud of its freedom, it can be content on a rather isolated island.

Closer to an implementation level, cyclic data processing activities and structures have been proposed with the diverse "ART" (Adaptive Resonance Theory) models for neural networks (Grossberg, 1988).

In a symbolic framework production systems (can) do, very roughly speaking, the same thing (Anderson, 1983).

With a working system it has been proven that cycles of data collection and analysis with new data acquisition and analysis guided by updated expectations, and so on, yield good performance of an object detection- and recognition device (Thomsen, 1987).

In beings made of flesh and blood, periodic and self-referring activities are an ubiquitous phenomenon starting at the level below single nerve cells. The brain abounds with neural loops.

Recent neurological findings might be seen as supporting the proposed basic layout: the more predictable and melody-like tone sequences are, the more the synchronization between recording sites widely distributed over the brain increases (Patel, 2000).

A very long way above the anatomical and physiological levels, but following the same principles, abstract goals and expectations would be just tips of the iceberg that we can maybe subsume under the heading of 'meaning'.

Art and beauty would be two facets that visibly stick out of the deep water of the unconscious. The big junk of material beneath the surface would form the basis for all our mental activity, for models that we build of the world (Thomsen, 200?). This also provides the grounding for (seen from one perspective) very abstract concepts like qualia and cultural contexts.

So could, for example, the pleasure of (watching) a dance performance or a sports event be well understood as an effect of the here outlined mechanisms; this would actually shed some light on the more abstract issues of art as these activities are in more direct contact to the grounding levels. An investigation of such questions definitively needs more space then this brief sketch can provide.

Like what has been said about emotions, consciousness itself could at the same time set the stage for our actions and also be the result of them, in a second (or higher-) order process (Damasio, 1999).

There is no easy reduction to cause and effect in such self-referring, self-organizing and partly circular chicken-and-egg-configurations. Synergetic concepts of emergence and hypercycles seem more appropriate (Haken, 1983; Eigen 1977, 1978).

What results in total is not simply a closed circle, but rather an open spiral. Rules (schemata) are vitally needed; we have great fun whenever we can understand something easily in their frame and yet, breaking them at times can increase the pleasure. Paradoxically this creates new rules, - e.g. new art styles.

It does not seem farfetched to assume that the outlined basic organization in iterative loops guided by expectations and controlled by means of self-monitoring feed back forms a most basic layout of every behavior starting in principle already at the single cell level.

What has been exemplified mainly on the sense of vision could quite naturally be transferred to the other senses and, with some abstraction, to about any (active) behavior.

The characteristics enlisted like symmetry cannot only be found at the feature level but also much higher up in the space of (abstract) concepts; it could well be that any real masterpiece of art has to go beyond what is directly accessible to the senses (and to simple explanation).

A certain level of activity, and the quest for it, has been claimed to constitute a specific trait of live. We do not feel very comfortable with too little or too much activity or stress.

The "struggle for life" would be a metaphor for the attempts of keeping 'control signals' in the green range, i.e. enough food at one end of the scale and the pleasure of "heureka" when solving an abstract problem or the experience when looking at a true piece of art at the other end of the same scale.

At rather high levels activity based mainly on data from memory, organized in loops of internally simulated actions, imagined in a model of the world, might be simply called (conscious) thinking,... with somewhere close the top the naturally arising luxury of art.

A sense for beauty and art and thus the phenomena themselves in the end would be necessary side results of an effective and efficient organizational principle, most basic for life.

With this it is easy to imagine that even more fun than from a veiled statue might be drawn from watching a lively girl's striptease.


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