We seem to be biologically prepared to look for very specific cues about the natural world, in much the manner of chipping sparrows choosing coniferous branches. In separate surveys, Ulrich, Orians, and others have found that people respond strongly to landscapes with open, grassy vegetation, scattered stands of branchy trees, water, changes in elevation, winding trails, and brightly lit clearings, preferably partly obscured by foliage in the foreground. It’s a landscape that invites exploration, promising resources and refuge at the same time. The changes in elevation—a view of distant mountains, for instance—provide a landmark to help the viewer orient himself in the scene. The winding trail and the partly obscured clearing provide mystery and entice our innate curiosity to explore. Flowers are valuable not merely for their beauty, but also because they promise fruit and honey. Orians and co-author Judith Heerwagen note that we prefer flowers to be big and asymmetrical, traits that indicate greater nectar content. They argue that we bring flowers to hospitals because they are literally good medicine: They soothe us with the promise of better times ahead.
All this may seem like a long way from a John Constable landscape. But Orians and Heerwagen found that these habitat cues abound in landscapes by Constable and other artists. When they compared sketches Constable made on the spot with the finished paintings he produced later in his studio, they found that the artist consistently “savannafied” reality to enhance the desirable cues—stripping away foliage to expose tree branches or adding houses for refuge. Habitat cues turn up even in a portrait like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s not just the woman who is serene; it’s the setting: A winding road in the background leads through scattered trees to a brightly lit clearing, with a bridge across a river and mountains in the distance, all under a blue sky. In a subsequent study, Orians and Heerwagen applied their evolutionary perspective to 35 paintings of sunsets, by such artists as Frederick Church and Martin Johnson Heade, on the theory that sunset would have been fraught with tension for our ancestors. “When you’re out walking on the African savanna,” says Orians, “and the sky is getting pink, and in a half hour the lions and hyenas are going to be coming out, sunset is terrifying. We really worry at sunset about where we’re going to spend the night.” Orians and Heerwagen found that two thirds of the paintings included a refuge clearly accessible to the viewer—a church or a house, often with a light in the window.
Anxiety about lions is of course irrational in the context of an English or American landscape. But biologists say we are built to make snap judgments about such landscapes, without conscious thought. “Behavioral sciences were dominated until fairly recently,” says Ulrich, “by theories that put emphasis on conscious, deliberate thinking as a source of feelings. But such an animal would have been highly dysfunctional: ‘There’s something moving. By golly, it looks like a snake. Last time I saw a snake somebody got bitten. Hey, maybe I should feel a little bit afraid.’ Well, no.” When we see a snake, it pays to jump faster than we can say the word. It takes less than a quarter of a second for the body to register a physiological response to a threat, and somewhat longer—a second or two, according to Ulrich—to register a positive stimulus.
But wait. Unless they are deranged, don’t people in a museum know they are looking at paintings on a wall, not real landscapes or real snakes? In traditional criticism, our aesthetic responses are practically defined by being unreal and having no practical application. Seeing an Andy Warhol painting of a Campbell’s soup can does not make us reach for a spoon, and neither should a painting of a sunset make us imagine we are out on the savanna with no place to sleep.
But biologists argue that aesthetic and real-life responses differ only in degree. “Alfred Hitchcock was great at this,” says Nancy Aiken, author of The Biological Origins of Art. “You see a knife coming down and you don’t have to see the victim; you know it hits. You might actually gasp and grab hold of the arms of the chair. The blood pressure is going up, the palms are sweating. It’s this internal, visceral alerting response. We’re physiologically preparing for flight from danger.” It takes the conscious brain a moment to remind us there’s no real danger.
So should we judge art by what makes the palms sweat, or by what soothes the troubled brow? One art historian who dismissed the idea that biology and art have anything to do with each other suggested that I look up a recent book called Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Russian immigrants, commissioned polls in various countries of what people want in their paintings. To Melamid, the uniformity of the results suggested genetic imprinting: “In every country the favorite color is blue, and almost everywhere green is second. . . . Everywhere the people want outdoor scenes, with wild animals, water, trees, and some people.” The two artists then painted each country’s “most wanted” image. Kenya’s, for example, featured Jesus Christ rising out of a lake with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, a hippo grazing on the shore, a family preparing dinner with mortar and pestle, and a blue sky. The point, of course, was parody.
At times, the biological point of view seems to come perilously close to Komar and Melamid’s perspective, without the satiric edge. Ulrich, for instance, writes about “the need for research to establish scientific guidelines to help interior designers select art that is reliably stress reducing and physiologically supportive. . . . ” But he is talking only about art in hospitals and in other medical contexts, where he believes the sole critical standard is whether art “improves outcomes in patients, and if it doesn’t, it’s bad art.”
The idea of any scientific guidelines for art is guaranteed to raise hackles. And listening to Ulrich, you can easily imagine the tort already festering in some medical malpractice lawyer’s brain: “That Jackson Pollock painting killed my client.” In truth, figuring out just what constitutes therapeutic art can be difficult. In the mid-1990s, Duke University Medical Center installed a whimsical courtyard sculptural arrangement called The Bird Garden, inspired by Florence Nightingale’s belief that good art in hospitals can be an “actual means of recovery.” It consisted of 10-foot-tall steel pieces commemorating birds that are now extinct, like the dodo and the passenger pigeon. Patients looking at the courtyard sculptures soon began to project their troubles onto the art. One piece reminded them of hands reaching up from the grave. Another piece, depicting an owl, disturbed them by seeming to stare with one glowering eye. A psychologist like Coss might have informed administrators that chimpanzees will avoid looking at a toy with prominent eyes, gorillas feel threatened by the blank stare of binoculars, and “one of the most primitive avoidance responses to form exhibited by man today is gaze aversion to the unyielding stare of a stranger.” The hospital has since removed the sculptures and redesigned the courtyard with inoffensive plants.
But all of this raises the question of why the rest of us, who don’t happen to be in hospitals, actually seek out disturbing art. If evolution shapes what we like, why don’t we stick with tranquil savannafied landscapes? Why go to a museum to see a painting by George Stubbs, who never left Europe but depicted lions sinking tooth and claw into the necks of terrified horses? What do we find so compelling about a J.M.W. Turner seascape of a storm, which seems to swirl across the canvas without horizon or anything else to give the viewer a foothold? From an evolutionary perspective, says Orians, we find such paintings fascinating because they help us prepare. We look at them for same reason that we rubberneck at car wrecks, or watch “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel: to learn how to avoid getting into the same situation. Seeing Hitchcock’s Psycho terrifies us—and reminds us to lock the bathroom door. Art is a message about survival. We are also built to seek thrills, preferably in a safe context. A painting in a museum allows us to experience Turner’s perfect storm without strapping ourselves to a mast and risking shipwreck, as the artist did.
Some of the most intriguing ideas about the interplay between visual pleasure and peril continue to come from Coss, who has studied everything from the predator response of California ground squirrels to the design of visual stimulation for astronauts on nasa spacecraft. In his current research, Coss is learning how various primate species protect themselves from leopards, which have preyed on them (and us) for more than 3 million years. Crab-eating monkeys, for example, have a visual system that is highly sensitive to the color yellow, apparently for easier detection of leopards. Coss has also found that a patch of spotted fur no larger than a football will produce alarm even in bonnet macaque populations that have not been exposed to leopards for generations. He theorizes that leopard spots also elicit an innate predator response in humans. This may be why heads of state like Mobutu Sese Seko, the late dictator of Zaire, wear leopard-skin robes and hats.
The zigzag scaly pattern on snakes also appears to elicit an innate arousal in many animals. Coss flips through a clothing catalogue to a photograph of a woman in a Gottex bathing suit. The pattern comes, he says, from a venomous Asian pit viper. It makes him wonder about the intended effect: “If you have something that catches your attention in clothing and you combine that with the body of a person who is not going to harm you, it might make you more interested. It’s not going to make you fearful, because it’s not a frightening context.”
Churches and temples seem to use snakeskin patterns to slightly different effect, Coss suggests. The snakelike tile patterns in old mosques and cathedrals “might enhance the religious, fervent emotions,” eliciting a mix of “awe and reverence.” Or these patterns may simply help keep worshippers awake: “These are things that attract attention,” he says, “and it doesn’t wane, we don’t habituate well to it, the pattern doesn’t become neutral.” Our visual world is full of these biological cues, says Coss, often deployed without conscious thought to their origins, and responded to in the same unthinking fashion.
In certain public spaces, particularly stairways and corridors, Coss believes complex visual details, such as patterned wallpaper or conspicuous graphics in the carpeting, may serve a social function by deflecting the gaze of approaching strangers. In other contexts, these details may be subtly oppressive. Not long ago, for instance, I stayed in a beach rental that I came to think of as “knotty pine hell.” After a while, I figured out what was making me so uncomfortable: The knots in the wood paneling were paired like unblinking eyes all around me.
The evidence, says Orians, is that our visual environment profoundly influences our physical and mental health, much as a suitable habitat makes for healthier animals in the zoo.
I was thinking about all this back home, on the porch of the house my wife and I recently built on the Connecticut shore. The porch columns around me suddenly felt like tree trunks and the ceiling became the forest canopy, with the paddle fan fluttering overhead like leaves in the breeze. It dawned on me that what we had created was no more than an elaborate replica of that camp site at the edge of a forest in Africa. From my refuge, I looked out at a perfect shopping list of biological habitat cues: There was a grassy lawn, a footpath winding through a scattered stand of branchy trees, a brightly lit clearing in the distance, partly obscured by vegetation, and beyond that, a deep-blue swath of water. I closed my eyes and could feel the puppet strings of evolution tugging at my turn-of-the-millennium soul.