Eye candy

The pleasure we take in beauty must have been shaped by evolution — but what adaptive advantage did it give us?

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Esme Grant walks over ‘ZOBOP 1999’, a large scale installation by artist Jim Lambie. Photo by David Moir/Reuters

Esme Grant walks over ‘ZOBOP 1999’, a large scale installation by artist Jim Lambie. Photo by David Moir/Reuters

Mohan Matthen is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Seeing, Doing and Knowing (2005). Born in India, he lives in Canada.

In every culture on Earth, people decorate their possessions and themselves, and enjoy visual art. They stare in awe at vast landscapes and the starry sky, and they sing and dance, and make instrumental music. Why? The answer seems obvious: it gives them pleasure. But why should it? What benefit does the capacity for aesthetic pleasure bestow on the human organism?

We know that aesthetic pleasure isn’t just a drive, like hunger or sexual desire. Hunger is prospective: it urges us to eat. Pleasure, on the other hand, accompanies eating. It tells us ‘Keep eating this!’ But eating should not continue indefinitely, and so once the body is sated, pleasure fades. The fuller you are, the less pleasant it is to eat, no matter how delicious the food. Like many drive-associated pleasures, hunger has a characteristic time-profile. Being hungry is unpleasant; being very hungry is exceedingly so. When you eat, you relieve the distress of hunger and begin to take pleasure in the food itself (if it is tasty). As you become sated, the pleasure dies away. Sexual pleasure has a similar profile, though of course its regulatory role is a good bit more complex.

Eating and sex are drive-related pleasures, but we experience other kinds of pleasures, too. Consider cuddling. There is no drive to cuddle a loved one. There is no increasingly unpleasant hormonal build-up that impels you; unlike hunger or sex, it isn’t brought on by deprivation. Nor is there any orgasmic satiation point. Cuddling has a relatively flat time-pleasure profile. Of course, nobody goes on cuddling forever. But this is because other urges take over, or because they become sleepy or tire of it. Pleasure encourages the activity independently of any immediate result.

Aesthetic pleasure is activity-focused, like cuddling, not drive-actuated or end-directed, like eating. The activity it accompanies is what I would generically call ‘contemplation’. You are listening to an aria by Rossini or the sound of a nightingale; you are looking at the Rocky Mountains or a painting by Ingres: aesthetic pleasure tells you that this contemplative engagement is worthwhile, to keep on doing it – but not for some immediate result. By contrast I can take pleasure in looking at the Rocky Mountains for different reasons – that are not aesthetic. Catching sight of the Mountains, I might be elated that my long journey to the ski-slopes is finally coming to an end. Aesthetic pleasure by contrast, is pleasure in just looking at something, or listening to it, or pleasure in contemplating its qualities. Aesthetic pleasure motivates you to keep looking; it doesn’t tell you that the object of your contemplation is good for anything other than contemplation.

Activity-focused pleasures can elicit characteristic bodily or behavioural responses. They might express themselves involuntarily in the face by a soft expression or smile. Psychologically, they focus attention on the pleasurable activity; one tends to ‘get lost’ in the beauty of the starry sky or in Van Gogh’s version, and other concerns, including worries and pain, tend to recede. This dreaminess or absorption is mediated by endogenously secreted opioids, which also bring on feelings of pleasure. These effects are characteristic of what we might call physical pleasure, and we should recognise that some intellectual pleasures – a book, a Sudoku puzzle, friendly conversation – elicit physical pleasure. And so does aesthetic pleasure.

Whether drive-related or activity-focused, pleasure gives us information about things in the world – but its messages are relevant only to a specific activity. The pleasant taste of a mango tells me that it is good to eat when I am hungry, but it doesn’t tell me anything about other activities that I could undertake with mangoes. It doesn’t tell me, for instance, that a mango is a good thing to apply to a wound (as certain leaves are) or that it is good to look at. Similarly, a person with whom one cuddles isn’t necessarily one with whom one wants to have sex (eg, one’s sibling) or conversation (eg, one’s dog). A book that makes for good reading might not look good on a shelf. Pleasure in a particular object for a particular purpose does not necessarily translate into generalised approval.

The specificity of pleasure might seem obvious, but some writers on aesthetic pleasure miss this point. Aesthetic pleasure is pleasure in contemplating something. This pleasure could be sensory, like the enjoyment one derives from looking at a painting or listening to music. Or it could be intellectual, like the pleasure of reading the latest Robert Harris. In both cases, pleasure in contemplation has to be distinguished from wanting an object for other uses. Immanuel Kant in the 18th century was among the first to understand this. His example was that of a palace. You might long to live in it, or you might hate it for its extravagance and want to destroy it. But both of these responses are distinct from the pleasure or displeasure derived from merely looking at it. Only the latter pleasure counts as aesthetic.

Darwin wrongly equates the lustful gaze with simple looking. Kant’s point was that aesthetic appreciation is disinterested

Discussing sexual selection, Charles Darwin wrote: ‘When we behold a male bird elaborately displaying his graceful plumes or splendid colours before the female ... it is impossible to doubt that she admires the beauty of her male partner.’ Assuming that he really means beauty, and not sexual attractiveness, this is a mistake. It confuses sexual desire with aesthetic admiration. According to Darwin’s own theory, when a female looks at a male that way, she is not getting pleasure from looking at him for the sake of looking at him; rather, she is driven to mate with him. Darwin wrongly equates the lustful gaze with simple looking. Kant’s point was that aesthetic appreciation is disinterested. It is pleasure just in looking.

This brings me back to the puzzle. Aesthetic pleasure encourages us to contemplate its object. But why is this good, from an evolutionary point of view? Why is it valuable to be absorbed in contemplation, with all the attendant dangers of reduced vigilance? Wasting time and energy puts organisms at an evolutionary disadvantage. For large animals such as us, unnecessary activity is particularly expensive.

The answer might lie in our modes of perception. Our perceptual receptors receive a ‘booming, buzzing confusion’ of stimulation. Vision gives us two slightly differing two-dimensional images; hearing gives us two sound images, each a summation of sonic emissions from many different sources. These images change from moment to moment, as the perceiver’s position as well as external circumstances change. Yet, perception delivers to our consciousness a remarkably clear and coherent presentation of discrete objects arrayed in three-dimensional space. This happens even in bad conditions, such as darkness or fog, or in chaotic soundscapes such as parties and concerts. In a huge range of conditions, many inimical to receiving information, perceivers have an extraordinary ability to construct a stable and coherent image of the world.

To do this the visual system has to be sensitive to pattern and order, to be able to sniff out signs of significant objects and events. Finding such patterns comes naturally to us, but like other natural activities it requires practice. Perception is a skill that has to be developed by repetition. Think of motor skills. Animals and humans play and roughhouse to develop skills, and evolution has made it pleasurable to do so. Similarly, infants babble, then talk ... and talk, and talk. They don’t do this to communicate. They do it to play, and by this play they acquire the capacity to communicate.

It is the same with perception. As the psychologist Daniel Berlyne noted in the 1960s, infants begin perceiving by staring, and cocking their heads to listen, to take in simple patterns. As they grow older, they become interested in more and more complex displays, staring with special fascination at incongruities, asymmetries, and the like. This is perceptual play, and it develops perceptual skill. As we grow to adulthood, the patterns that give us pleasure are more complex than those that first entranced us. As infants, we might stare at checkerboards; as adults, we are moved by the mysteries of complex landscapes and the star-filled expanse of the sky.

Aesthetic pleasure is the fun of perceptual play, and it is valuable because it develops perceptual skill. This complements a suggestion made by the British neuroscientist Semir Zeki: art, he wrote in 1998, is a search for ‘the constant, lasting, essential and enduring features of objects, surfaces, faces, situations’. The objects we pleasurably gaze at are those that afford us a rich field for such a search. We begin our lives by taking pleasure in looking and listening to things, which is how we learn to perceive.

What motivates individuals to take on the unpleasant practice needed to improve their skills to the extraordinary levels art demands?

It is not yet clear why adults should find perceptual play fun. Aren’t we done learning how to perceive? Everyone achieves a certain basic level of skill in characteristically human activities: walking, talking, looking, listening, and singing. We do this by pleasurable play when young, and we maintain these skills with practice well into adulthood. But with each of these activities, the human body affords us the capacity to improve – to become extraordinarily skilled. Spontaneously developed language and motor skills are adequate for most purposes, but they are far below those of the most accomplished performers. An accomplished poet or playwright has a command of language that comes from repetition, practice, and instruction. She comes to this level of expertise with great difficulty. The same goes for somebody who appreciates poetry with hard-won knowledge of context and allusion.

Basic skills are achieved by pleasurable activity, extraordinary skills by painful and difficult activity. The activity by which an accomplished artist improves and maintains her skill is arduous, not spontaneous. Nonetheless, there is a kind of pleasure that comes with high levels of skill as well.

Somebody who is practising to reach a level of skill beyond what her current achievements usually experiences displeasure along the way. Let’s say she’s a pianist practising Chopin’s Études. She is dissatisfied when she plays them at the skill level she has already achieved, and this is why she wants to improve. But when she tries to play them better – faster, more evenly, with more power – she finds that her fluency is poor. She has to break established habits in order to achieve a higher level of performance. Her teacher might introduce her to new techniques to help, or she could try them out on her own accord, or even (if she is truly outstanding) invent them. But when she uses these new techniques, she has to think step by step about what she is doing, which is stressful, and she constantly fails. These are painful experiences, but when she is finally able to play at the skill level she is aiming for, she plays fluently and what she plays sounds good to her. As the Florida State University psychologist K Anders Ericsson has found, pleasure in performance happens when skill matches aspiration. But achieving aspirational levels can be extremely difficult, involving life-changing sacrifices and dedication.

What motivates individuals to take on the unpleasant practice needed to improve their skills to the extraordinary levels art demands? Partly ambition, of course, and the desire to achieve easy fluency, however unpleasant the process of achieving it might be. But human cultures have also invented a motivating device – interactive play. In the realm of motor play, sports and games fulfil this role – winning is an artificially created achievement that motivates individuals to become better. In the case of aesthetic activity, there is art, which is an interaction between maker and consumer. The maker skilfully creates something that challenges the perceptual discrimination of the consumer; by improving her discriminatory abilities, the consumer challenges the creative capacity of the maker.

Here is a parable to illustrate the process. Suppose that a primitive maker of cloth decorates her product with a complex design. As it turns out, everybody else in the community shares in the perceptual pleasure she enables, which gives her an economic incentive to produce more patterned cloth. Maybe others copy her as well, and insinuate themselves into her domain. At this point, repeated perceptual attention to the pattern will induce in consumers a greater sensitivity to the subtleties of patterned cloth. Thus, consumers (including the maker herself) become sensitised to imperfections in the patterns – perhaps the spatial interval is not perfectly even, or perhaps the repeated element is not exactly the same throughout. This gives producers the incentive to improve their skills and, because they invest in beauty, it gives consumers an incentive to improve their skills of discrimination. The result is a virtuous spiral in the co-development of perceptual and productive skills.

The Renaissance art historian Michael Baxandall wrote in 1972 that taste is ‘the conformity between discriminations demanded by a painting and skills of discrimination possessed by the beholder’. Looking at a great painting, he said, ‘a man with intellectual self-respect [is] in no position to remain quite passive; he [is] obliged to discriminate’. This interaction between artist and beholder is the cultural context that drives both making and perceiving to ever higher levels.

Art then, is a cultural institution that channels and transforms our capacity for aesthetic pleasure, from a developmental tool, first glimpsed in infant perceptual play, into something complex and grand. Something worthy of being called beauty.

Read more essays on aesthetics and evolution


  • http://thewayitis.info/ Derek Roche

    Bad question, Prof. What evolution has endowed us with is a reflective intelligence that allows us to see the intransitive in the transitive, the universal in the particular. The moment of aesthetic arrest is just that shivering insight that transcends the merely utilitarian.

    • Johnny V

      You must be joking.

    • 013090

      What is the evolutionary point of aesthetic pleasure then?

  • Bob Grumman

    I'm sure art, in creating beauty, gives us valuable practice in acute perceptual discrimination, etc., but I believe its main evolutionary advantage (and it has more than a few) is its ability simply . . . to give us pleasure. Without that life would in many cases be too uninteresting or even painfully boring to be worth living. No doubt most of us would continue to go through the motions if we had no art, but without zest, with much less to look forward to than we have now.

  • tetriminos

    of course, freud would say everything is a more socially accepted expression of the libido. i think the arts have an easier spiritual explanation, than evolutionary.

  • PL

    The argument that aesthetic pleasure is only instrumental to the perfection of our perception seems not all that satisfactory. How does it account for the high cost involved in gaining an extraordinarily perception, and the almost nonexistent reproductive advantage this skill brings? Does having the "hard-won knowledge of context and allusion" make anyone more fit for survival? Do these skills matter at all in terms of evolution?

    • Laleh

      It might be possible that there is reproductive advantage in picking beautiful mates if picking "beautiful" mates means picking healthy, fertile, mates?

    • SKF

      It seems quite plausible that increasingly acute perceptive and associative capabilities are advantageous, even if particular applications of those capabilities in visual arts and poetry are not directly so. I took that to be Matthen's point.

  • http://www.myeyesarehungry.com Neil

    Very interesting read.

  • gogododo

    So I feel for purposes of this argument that we should separate beauty into what is created through human intervention and what is created through "nature". I put nature in quotes because people are of course natural and no matter what we create from
    plastic water bottles to hadron collider are as natural as beaver dams and bee hives. When we do create beauty, we express our intelligence which is a desirable trait for humans. When viewing non- human beauty we are processing information about our immediate environment, which in turns tells us about our health. Spending an hour in a factory may not have any significant impact on our health but we know on a primal level its not a healthy place and we should keep moving. So we send ourself message to leave even if other parts of the brain have allotted a reasonable amount of time to dwell there. So When we come across an environments which are safe, (high up with good views), or areas such as woods where there looks like there might be loots a food because a quick scan gives a high bi diversity our brain tells us these are good places to stay and we process this as beauty. Of course this leaves out full moons sunsets, rainbows, and such but who's to say beauty solely resides in the eye, or ear of the beholder

  • Alex Nowak

    Interesting article. Speaking from personal experience, aesthetic pleasure often leads to other, seemingly unrelated associations, which in turn, lead to still more. For instance, reading The Hobbit and/or seeing the book's dogeared exterior triggers a memory of my grandparents, from whom I received the book, while simultaneously recalling an image I saw in another book of artist renderings of Middle Earth. From there, I can jump to any number of other topics of contemplation based solely on reading a few paragraphs or simply looking at the cover of the book. What of the memory activation, though? It's a bittersweet recollection, at once happy and sad, but it only heightens my appreciation for the object especially, as well as making the story more pleasurable to read. I've made a personal connection to a piece of art and an ordinary object that someone else might say needs to be replaced with a new copy. What purpose does the memory serve? Perhaps the triggered recollections and myriad associations serve not only to improve our skills of perception and production as they relate to the art itself, but as a means of creating or expanding neurons to make us ultimately more aware in every way. Our fleeting loss of external concentration is rewarded with a more complex understanding of our environment and how we can survive within it.

  • DeepBrown

    German authors like Goethe, Schiller (who wrote an entire book about this), and Winkelmann ("Edle Einfalt und stille Größe") already wrote everything on this subject.

  • Seth Edenbaum

    "In a thoroughly humanized society everything -clothes speech manners, government- is a work of art, being so done as to be a pleasure and a stimulus in itself. There seems to be an impression in America that art is fed on the history of art, and is what is found in museums. But museums are mausoleums, only dead art is there, and only ghosts of artists flit about them. The priggish notion that an artist is a person undertaking to produce immortal works suffices to show that art has become a foreign thing, an hors-d'oeuvre and that it is probably doomed to affectation and sterility." Santayana

    I'm always amazed how people in philosophy departments now try to separate their preoccupations as 'philosophers' from the interests of those in the arts. It's a product of science envy and more pathology than logic. In the continental tradition the claimed superiority is not of scientists to artists but of philosophers qua philosophers or priests and theologians to tradesmen.

    We order the world according to our preferences. Socrates' arguments begin from his interests just as any poet's do. He imagined what he considered an ideal state for the world and himself and argued from it and for it. The "Euthyphro problem" is a theme in Euripides and the story of Moses and Aron. It's a universal in the sense of standard in world philosophy and literature.

    Why grow your hair long or keep it short? Why slouch or stand ramrod straight? What do surgeons and tight-rope walkers have in common? Why did Quine become a logician instead of a lawyer? Why the need to imagine intellectual transparency and non-existence of the self, so that "art" becomes if not superfluous, then symptom, for the philosophically minded to disdain or damn with faint praise?

    The manners of contemporary academia are an example of form. The form represents an ethic and a moral order. It is a system among systems.

    An aesthetic is the material or formal manifestation of an ethic. To ask why one is to ask why the other.

  • polistra24

    A proper scientist or philosopher starts questioning his assumptions when they lead to contradictions. "Why did we evolve ...." starts from an UNPROVEN axiom, an UNPROVEN assertion of faith. This assertion, that we evolved, creates so many problems that a proper scientist should ask whether it's a valid assumption.

  • SKF

    "The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space. There is no other reason than this why 'the hand I touch and see coincides spatially with the hand I immediately feel.'" -William James

  • JB13

    This is a key question in the societal contest between belief in evolution vs. design. It is, relatively, one of the strongest arrows in the quiver of those who come down on the side of design: Why can we separate the utilitarian aspects of, say, a mountaintop (high up, easily defended, etc.) from the intrinsic awe-inspiring beauty of its purple, white, blue, grey, black, etc.? And perhaps more importantly, what evolutionary advantage is there, at all, in pausing to appreciate the beauty of a volcanic eruption, even knowing full well it could kill us, or, much more benignly, lingering on a beach to watch the sunset over a body of water? Some might say it's because it triggers a pleasurable memory. Perhaps in some people. But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone, whether or not they've had pleasant experiences on a beach at any point in their lives, who would just shrug their shoulders or stare at you with incredulity if you remarked upon the visceral beauty of what was taking place on the horizon, and all around you, simultaneously. The design people would say this is because we were designed to respond to beauty in such a way - that we can't help it.

  • johnwerneken

    Cool essay, thank you!

  • A Amiri

    Anybody who considers humans a mere biological processor through a materialistic worldview is wrong!

    We homo sapiens are endowed with a "self" that, unlike other organisms, grows and develops or otherwise shrinks and stagnates. We need meanings, beauty and good deeds in order to develop our personalities.

    The evolutionary reason is that when our "self" grows, we reach higher levels of perception and understanding; we learn and teach. If we don't appreciate beauty, we wouldn't learn to become beautiful or do meaningful deeds.

    Also, i need to mention that not everyone on this planet is attracted towards beauty or appreciates it.

  • Emery Richards

    Well, I don't mean to burst your bubble, but we did not "evolve", we were created by a
    God described as "love", who through his undeserved kindness gave us the ability to appreciate beauty, and who created the beauty for us to appreciate. Evolution is a rediculous "science" that has NEVER had one scrap of credible evidence to support it. All of the evidence that the proponents of evolution use have all been proven to be hoaxes. Manufactured evidence. It is also the only science aside from man made global warming, that refuses to use the scientific methods to arrive at it's own conclusions.

    • Charles Darwin


    • Henry Savit

      this is amazingly correct. thank you for this

      • Emery Richards

        I am happy you appreciate my comment. I had previously received one from CHARLES DARWIN in the form of a photograph of him with both middle fingers up. Very mature. That's the only response that the evolutionists could come up with in the face of actual facts. Quite amazing, and telling.

  • ESNYC80

    If the act of perception is itself a skill, that might explain why our tastes evolve over time. I liked rap music when I was 13, but now it reminds me of the unsophisticated sounds a child makes when learning a new musical instrument, while I have developed an appreciation for the complexities of Ravel and Prokofiev. I've also traded my Coke for Bordeaux, my mac 'n cheese for Stilton, and my Hardy Boys for Dostoevsky. In light of that, your explanation of our capacity for aesthetic pleasure, and for that capacity to develop, makes tremendous sense.

  • helfn

    It's because our creator is an artist and science is the paint,brushes and easel. We were created to appreciate this and to create our own as well. This is not religion I am agnostic and this is actually the only proof we have of our creator. It is also the proof we are ourselves created in the image of our creator. Cause we are just like that, what good is art if there is no one to appreciate it. If you build it they will come. If there was no one to come would you still build it? No.

  • Lonewolf Ethos

    "The pleasure we take in beauty must have been shaped by evolution" . . . . --why must it have been?

    Evolution only explains materialism, it does not explain transcendent ideas.

  • Marlene Brown

    Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind principle really appeals to me. He likens our big brain and its ability to create and appreciate beauty to a peacock's tail. A sort of "I do because I can, whatever the cost." Look what a catch I am!