Art, The Golden Mean, and The Brain

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by: Roger Dooley

do mathematicians, architects, sculptors, biologists, and graphic
designers have in common? They all use what is perhaps the most
interesting number in mathematics: the Golden Mean, also called the
Golden Ratio and the Golden Section.
Approximated as 1.618, the Golden Mean plays a prominent role in
math, science, and art. Mathematicians know it as “phi” – the ratio
between number pairs in the Fibonacci series. Biologists find it in the
proportions of Nautilus shells and leaves. Architects, painters, and
sculptors have incorporated the ratio into their works because it seems
to impart a pleasing balance. The facade of the Parthenon, considered
to be one of the most perfectly proportioned buildings in history,
matches the Golden Ratio. The frequency with which this number seems to
pop up in such disparate areas may strike some as surprising, or even a
bit spooky. Now, neuroscientists are starting to unravel at least a
piece of the mystery using fMRI brain scans:

Di Dio, Emiliano Macaluso and Giacomo Rizzolatti… used fMRI scans to
study the neural activity in subjects with no knowledge of art
criticism, who were shown images of Classical and Renaissance
sculptures. The ‘objective’ perspective was examined by contrasting
images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures of canonical
proportions, with images of the same sculptures whose proportions were
altered to create a comparable degraded aesthetic value. In terms of
brain activations, this comparison showed that the presence of
the “golden ratio” in the original material activated specific sets of
cortical neurons as well as (crucially) the insula, a structure
mediating emotions
. [Emphasis added; from Science DaIs The Beauty Of A Sculpture In The Brain Of The Beholder?

researchers also found that the viewer’s emotions (presumably based on
experience and associations) also played a role in assessing beauty.
Hence, a particular viewer may find a piece of art beautiful for
subjective reasons even if it doesn’t match the hardwired criteria for
beauty. The authors speculate, though, that such artwork may have
short-lived appeal.

From a neuromarketing standpoint, it’s interesting to know that a positive response to specifically proportioned shapes is built into our brains.
That doesn’t mean that every element in every ad should have a width to
height ratio of 1.618. In some cases, deliberate deviations may have
greater impact; ads aren’t intended to be timeless works of art.
Subject matter and available space may impose other dimensions.
Nevertheless, graphic designers and commercial artists should be aware
of our brains’ preference for this proportion and use it when

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