In How Art Made the World, Nigel Spivey applies the idea of the peak-shift effect to art.
We are cognitively programmed to like the peak shift — exaggeration that essentialises what we perceive — by which the “pleasurable” element of a stimulus is refined to create a “super stimulus.” Jonah Lehrer describes peak shift in Psychology Today:
Whenever [herring gull chicks] see a bird beak, they frantically peck at it, begging for food. . . . But this reflex can be manipulated. Expose the chicks to a fake beak — say, a wooden stick with a red dot that looks like the one on the end of an adult herring gull’s beak — and they peck vigorously at that, too. Should the chicks see a wood stick with three red dots, they peck even faster. Abstracting and exaggerating the salient characteristics of a mother gull’s beak strengthens the response. [slightly ed.]
Similarly, we are drawn to peak shift features in art. As neuroaestheticist V.S. Ramachandran suggests, art doesn’t aim at realistic representation; it employs “deliberate hyperbole, exaggeration, even distortion, in order to create pleasing effects in the brain” (“The Artful Brain” [2003 Reith Lecture 3] 171).
The distortion isn’t random: some forms of distortion have proved more effective in that they appeal to “the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar” and have come to constitute the laws of artistic experience. (It seems to me that Ramachandran draws on the law of prägnanz [G. “pithiness”] from Gestalt Psychology: the idea that we tend to order our experience in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetric and simple.)
Ramachandran posits ten laws of aesthetic experience — the number of and distinctions between the laws and their domains seem to me ill-defined and fairly arbitrary, but they are useful to understand how we perceive — and create — art (he has in mind visual art and assumes that vision evolved to discover objects and defeat camouflage):
- peak shift — exaggeration (hyperbole): play up what is distinctive in the object to draw our eye to “supernormal” features (cf. Analytical Cubism);
- isolation — understatement (litotes): limit our attention to the object to a single “modality” (cf. Color Field);
- grouping — holism (emergence): appeal to our desire to group the fragments of an object into a whole (on the basis of closure rather than mere proximity, cf. Pointillism);
- contrast — juxtaposition of opposites (antithesis): appeal to the wealth of information present in regions of change, i.e., edges (cf. Fauvism);
- perceptual problem solving — camouflage (crypsis): complexify the object to delay our reward (cf. Abstract Expressionism);
- symmetry — appeal to our preference for symmetry as marking out objects of interest, i.e., predators and prey, and mates (cf. Classicism);
- generic viewpoint — represent the object from a generic vantage point, breaking the rule only for effect (cf. trompe-l’œil);
- repetition, rhythm and orderliness;
- metaphor — analogy: point up a feature of a source object unexpectedly shared by the target object. (From “The Artful Brain” [short version] 48 [long version: 173], and The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience [with William Hirstein])
(Note that in The Science of Art, Ramachandran stops with eight laws, omitting laws 8 and 9 — which seem to me instances of law 6: symmetry.)
All the laws rely on the axioms that
- we see only what we need to (much is redundant in nature);
- we can focus on only one thing at a time (attention cannot be divided);
- we see step-by-step (we bootstrap); and
- we like aha-moments (we seek a reward).
Ramachandran also asks why we bother creating and viewing art. He gives four possible answers, favouring the last:
- once aesthetic laws have evolved, they can be artificially stimulated for pleasure (art as artificial sweetener);
- artistic activity manifests good hand-eye coordination and thus evolutionary fitness (art as personal ad);
- artefacts are status symbols (art as bling); and
- art as reality testing (art as simulation).