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Imagine that you are an early human walking through the jungle and a tiger is lurking nearby. To survive, you would need an ear that could distinguish the sound waves released by the tiger’s footfall from all the other noises around you. Or an eye that could catch sight of the slightest spot of orange among the many green leaves. You would have to recognize patterns and be alert to changes in them.

Today, you may be using those same abilities to enjoy harmonies in music or admire visual effects in art. That is the conclusion of McMaster University psychologist Daphne Maurer and Toronto writer Charles Maurer, who have spent three decades establishing a scientific basis for aesthetics. Their recent book, Pretty Ugly: Why we like some songs, faces, foods, plays, pictures, poems, etc. and dislike others, begins with evolutionary biology and goes on to use neuroscience, developmental psychology, physics, mathematics, anthropology, musicology and art history to establish the mechanisms behind our cultural tastes. The tastes are subjective, to be sure, but the way they are established is not.

“To survive it’s very important to quickly recognize what we are encountering, whether we are looking at a log floating in the river or a crocodile,” Daphne said in a recent interview, adding it is more efficient for the brain to learn patterns and recognize breaks in them, than to store information about every single encounter. “Out of that actually follow our aesthetic preferences. When we can easily recognize what we have encountered and it’s not dangerous, it brings you pleasure, like mama’s comfort food for the eyes and ears.”

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As a species, humans have developed the ability to quickly recognize what we're encountering, whether that's a log floating in the river or a crocodile, says psychologist Daphne Maurer, explaining how we learn to appreciate patterns.

Charles Maurer/Handout

Daphne is a professor of psychology at McMaster in Hamilton, Ont., who has specialized in the development of vision, and although she has retired from teaching, her research is still coming to fruition. In 1988, she and Charles, a science writer and her husband, published The World of the Newborn, a book that explored babies’ first sensations and their growing understanding of their surroundings.

“We thought it would be nice to write a sequel but all adult perception seemed a bit much,” Charles said. “So we decided to limit it to the small area of aesthetics.”

“My bread and butter work is on perception, and how experience shapes our perception,” Daphne added. “We were curious if that perspective could help explain the arts. … People have written books on the psychology of art, the psychology of photography, the psychology of music, about flavour, but they were all separate systems. And we knew, from work on the brain, that once the information gets past about the first three synapses, it’s all processed in the same way. So we thought there must be some general principles.”

They have been working to establish those principles ever since.

One important building block in their argument is how we hear harmonics, the series of sound waves that appear everywhere from nature to music, from a tree root vibrating as we tread on it to an animal’s vocalizations to a piano being played. Encountering imperfect harmonics in nature again and again, our brain is gradually sensitized to a statistical average of all of them – or an ideal harmonic. The Maurers point out that our neural pathways are so appreciative of those patterns, we can fill them in without noticing: A standard radio can’t reproduce the low notes of a double bass or an organ yet if we listen to a concert broadcast, our brain lets us hear the full range of the instruments.

This process also applies to waves of light – that is, to our vision, letting us read impressionistic brushstrokes as a realistic image, for example.

Because we appreciate patterns, we like the familiar, the symmetrical and the average. The Maurers cite experiments where volunteers rate average faces (determined by large sets of measurements) as more attractive than ones that deviate widely from the norm. Meanwhile the patterns of fractals, geometric figures where each smaller part has the same structure as the whole, show up everywhere from landscape art to abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock.

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To illustrate the way we prefer averages over extremes in their book, Charles and Daphne Maurer morphed together four portraits.

“Just as fractals make the painting easier to perceive [for the viewer], the artist will be subject to that same phenomenon while painting. ‘Okay it works better if I go over there,’ ” Daphne said. “Fractal structure may make the painting more pleasing to the artist for reasons the artist doesn’t understand.”

Yet if we find patterns pleasing, we also like a bit of excitement, a bit of a break in the familiar.

“Comfort foods can become boring; we don’t want to eat them every day. We do seek safe novelty, which will be a deviation from what we expect.” The surveys of attractive faces, for example, show the volunteers appreciate slight improvements over the average, but don’t like any extreme. Meanwhile, the movement from familiar to novel and back again explains the flow of fashion, how we adopt a new hem-length or waistline and, once it has become familiar, view previous fashions as out-of-date and unattractive.

“Whether the deviation signals ugliness or danger, something negative or signals excitement and joy will really depend on our past experience,” Daphne said.

So, even though the Maurers’ work is scientific, it does not imply that there are objective standards of aesthetics; instead, negative or positive responses to sights, sounds and tastes are formed by social circumstances and personal experience. Positive experiences reinforce themselves, so the rock fan seeks out more rock concerts while the opera buff prefers opera.

This would seem to leave little room for critical judgement of art; critics might assess context or technique, but whether art is pleasing would be an entirely subjective response. To make that point, the Maurers cite a 2003 study of 29 New Zealand wine experts asked to taste an oaked chardonnay and name two of its qualities. Apart from 10 instances of “oak or oaky” there is little overlap in the adjectives they picked; on the 58 word-list, 34 adjectives are unique, describing tastes only one expert experienced.

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Oh well, at least the wine tasters did seem to agree unanimously when they were offered something wretched, but the larger point is neatly summarized by title of the Maurers’ book. What’s pretty to me may be ugly to you and vice versa.

Pretty Ugly is available from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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