Science Explains Why Humans Covet Beautiful Things

More and more, research is piling up to explain what we already knew: People love beautiful things.

Science Explains Why Humans Covet Beautiful Things
A detail of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Da Vinci’s paintings are typically composed around the Golden Mean.

Why are credit cards, televisions, books, and iPods shaped the same way? They all form a “golden rectangle”–a phenomenon we’ve recognized for millennia. But why are we so obsessed with these rectangles in our media? In 2009, Duke University researchers discovered a practical explanation. Humans can process information inside these rectangles, like text in a paragraph, very efficiently. In this case, we’re drawn to a lighter cognitive load. We like books because they actually look easy to read.


It’s just one of many examples given by Lance Hosey from The New York Times in a recent column. Through a series of research vignettes, he presents beautiful design as an evolutionary imperative beyond this caveman ideal of needing sharper rocks to better kill mastodons. I especially enjoyed this explanation of why we may love Jackson Pollock:

Certain patterns also have universal appeal. Natural fractals–irregular, self-similar geometry–occur virtually everywhere in nature: in coastlines and riverways, in snowflakes and leaf veins, even in our own lungs. In recent years, physicists have found that people invariably prefer a certain mathematical density of fractals–not too thick, not too sparse. The theory is that this particular pattern echoes the shapes of trees, specifically the acacia, on the African savanna, the place stored in our genetic memory from the cradle of the human race. To paraphrase one biologist, beauty is in the genes of the beholder–home is where the genome is.

LIFE magazine named Jackson Pollock “the greatest living painter in the United States” in 1949, when he was creating canvases now known to conform to the optimal fractal density (about 1.3 on a scale of 1 to 2 from void to solid). Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all of our brains?

We respond so dramatically to this pattern that it can reduce stress levels by as much as 60 percent–just by being in our field of vision.

But the most wonderfully complex thing about all the implications behind Hosey’s piece is that there’s no one driving scientific principle behind it all–other than that within many so-called beautiful designs, there’s some hidden positive correlate for the human experience. So all we’re left learning, really, is that our hands and eyes are drawn to these pretty objects for the same reason our tongues are drawn to sweets and fats. At some level, our taste actually influences our survival.

Read more here.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.