The instantaneous language of beauty

essay5 minutes

A shadow passes just outside our field of vision. But somehow we know it happened because we feel tense. Some sense has triggered our awareness, a sense that isn’t logical, a sense that we instead feel.

We sense the world before we are consciously aware of it through instinctive reactions to the aesthetics of our environment. We understand these reactions in ourselves emotionally. We do this well before we have time to use our linguistic system to think and create meaning. And we do this sensing unconsciously, like breathing, every second of our waking lives.

These processes happen quickly. At a glance, we notice and assess the multitude of patterns before us. When a pattern signals danger, we feel immediately that “something isn’t quite right” even though we can’t “put our finger on it”.

And when a pattern draws us in, we feel it’s beauty, and our curiosity. Like a shadow felt but not consciously seen, we’re hardly aware that the language of aesthetics is our first mode of understanding the world.

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Danger and beauty

When we use language, we have to think. We have to choose words, connect ideas, assemble metaphors, and then speak them. Thinking is expensive. We use aesthetic-based pattern-matching to give us answers before we consciously start thinking. We rely on aesthetics to make very fast decisions based on a library of intuitons built over a lifetime. The language of aesthetics is pre-verbal by necessity.

When we find a pattern in a scene to be dangerous, like the snake above, then we are electrified, instantly ready to react and avoid danger. All consciousness is focussed on the danger.

When we find symmetry in a scene to be pleasing, then we are calm, ready to begin investigating the scene. We may describe the scene as “interesting” or “beautiful” and begin consciously understanding it. We are drawn to beauty and repelled by danger.

Danger and beauty are the two extremes on the spectrum of the language of aesthetics. When we sense danger, we do not think. Instead we react to avoid the situation. Beauty, however, invites us to pause, pay attention, and then think. To find something beautiful is to find information we can use in our favour.

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Beauty invites participation

We understand danger overtly. Our body reacts like an electricity switch, automatically overriding the need for conceptual thought. Beauty, however, is far more subtle. Beauty invites. Beauty is a lure.

Predators often use beauty to their advantage. The Siphonophone (above) is an exotic creature, even to it’s prey. Spiralling itself across a large area to attract whatever may pass, it invites curiosity and investigation. Each tentacle can sting, sedate and consume. There is no warning here, only beauty.

As an adrenalised response is the defense for a target animal, a beautiful invitation is a weapon for those seeking targets. The Siphonophone uses beauty to prey, eat and survive.

While predation is a zero-sum game, other games are not. When a flower uses beauty to attract partners in its gene dispersion scheme, every participant wins. Beauty invites participation and attention.

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Beauty is opportunity

As pattern-matchers, we seek beauty because beautiful things signify opportunity. Like all animals, we intuitively know that beauty says “this thing has potential, it’s worth investigating”. From pain to pleasure, beauty is the subtle, calm opposite that invites us to think and act.

When found ripe by pre-agricultural humans, the bulging blackberries (above) would have been gorged before another animal could have taken the opportunity. The first glimpse of the berries on the tree would have elicited hushed enthusiasm, then quick maneuvering to capitalise on the scene.

Creativity is often misunderstood. We think it requires some form of talent or genius when, in fact, every human is innately predisposed to creatively find and exploit beauty. We just get hung up on concepts like “creative genius” because, as social animals, we hunger for status. But before beauty is given over to the subjective interpretation of taste, it has already triggered a calm and curious feeling that leads us to believe “this is interesting and worth my attention”.

In this way, a spreadsheet can absolutely contain beauty. Humans naturally seek beauty in order to make use of it.

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Irrational beauty matters more than we dare admit

Our irrational response to beauty is the reason why advertising sells not to our intellect but to our emotional feelings: “you’ll feel better when you have this”. It’s why people will say “I’ll know it when I see it” even though they can’t explain what they’re looking for. It’s why a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s what Buckminster Fuller meant when he said “if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Irrational beauty initiates thinking. I can tell you to think of the brilliantly patterned sea slug that introduced this post, and then describe the above picture of Reebok Instapumps as “venomous”, and I know you’ll understand me.

Faced with a decision between two objects, we’ll choose the one we developed an unaware bias for moments ago. By accessing the language of aesthetics, we know good from bad in an instant. Our innate sense for beauty draws us towards opportune information, with which we find ways to leverage our environment. But we only begin inspecting, interpreting, connecting and collecting information when beauty tells us it feels right.

Beauty and commerce

Every one of us post-rationalises our decisions as it suits us. The reasons for our choices are deeper than we think. While they won’t tell you, people will sense incongruence and walk away. Or they will notice seamless and cohesive symmetry in a fraction of a second, and begin inspecting. As we move toward “peak attention”, it pays not to underestimate how powerful, calming and attentive the feeling of beauty can be.