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← Why do we find mountains beautiful?

Pete H's Avatar Jump to comment 13 by Pete H

I find this stuff really interesting. Possibly because it provides some kind of justification for what otherwise might appear to be a frivolous waste of time.

I don’t know if any credible research work has been done. But a clue about humour might be that it is closely connected with memory. Setting aside that I can never remember good jokes and punchlines, things like unexpected spectacular mistakes in judgement or perception are the basis of most funny situations.

A useful technique for remembering otherwise easily forgettable things is to take a few moments to establish a mental association between what needs to be remembered and something ridiculous and funny. This trick works just as well as forming some kind of mental association with something horrific or sexy. As an example of how effective it can be: I tried this as a personal experiment in 1981, by getting a colleague to make up a long list of random items which I basically just read over once and formed various peculiar mental associations linking each item on the list. Then I tried to memorise the first item, which automatically linked to the next and so on. The process only took a couple of minutes. Now it’s over 30 years later and I can recall that list vividly, but I have no memory of who my colleague was or what they looked like or why the situation even arose.

As our ancestors became more intelligent and culturally sophisticated and capable then good long term memory would have become increasingly useful. But there’s no reason to assume that our ancestors had naturally better memories than we do today. So you can understand why emotions involving sex or fear would be adopted to augment memory, because they were readily available existing mechanisms to be employed for manipulating memory in a mind which subsequently evolved significantly more complex mental processing. E.g. Emotions of fear are involved in the learning process which produces PTSD. Perhaps humour is an extra tool in the memory aid box, but possibly more routinely useful because it is a distinctly separate neural pathway from the more dominant and potentially misdirecting and deeper emotions involving fear or sex.

Humans have also developed a willingness to share humorous memories as a form of entertainment and social bonding – perhaps with the indirect benefit of distributing the associated useful information by highlighting the risk of silly mistakes. Both aspects could arise from selection pressure over many generations.

On why we find things beautiful when there’s no obvious benefit? Perhaps that question is its own answer: the benefit is there but it just isn’t that obvious. You have to take away the benefit to see what’s left when it’s gone. It might be simply that extended visibility is an end in itself, to the extent that good visibility of anything provides intrinsic satisfaction. Such an emotion might have evolved because it is the opposite of the anxiety associated with poor visibility – where predators with a better sense of smell might have the advantage. Or where catching something good to eat is more difficult. Mountains are very large and a long way away, so being able to see them at all implies relatively good visibility, and therefore reduced anxiety and stress.

I think the idea about the visual attraction of different kinds of landscape scenes may have been mentioned in Steven Pinker’s ‘The Blank Slate’. The idea was that people are attracted to visual scenes to the extent that the landscape represented features that would have been specifically advantageous to humans in an ancestral environment. Crucial features being things like the presence of potable water, like a stream pond or river, good weather and visibility (preferably from a height looking down – providing tactical offensive and defensive advantages, the presence of some typical prey animals (horses, cattle, etc.), the presence of a grass plus a few trees (but not too many to conceal predators and prey), perhaps for fuel, tools, and somewhere to hide or which attracts prey animals as places to hide, etc.

On the beauty of music – there’s some good stuff in the book ‘This is Your Brain on Music’. Basically the theory is that human vocal language was originally more tonal and rhythmical with more dependence on facial expressions, body language, and hand signals, well before more abstract phonem character-based language evolved (which required different aspects of intelligence and more sophisticated cooperation and information exchange). Same thing with bird songs being based on pentatonics – the tones which are relatively close in frequency, and so can be formed by puffing air through vocal tracts, but which have distinctly different and contrasting frequency steps to be easily detectible as not being a natural sound (i.e. mindless noise created by other more random sources). The most readily available distinctive musical notes and harmonic possibilities are an important basis of our music. (And of birds.) There is an underlying mathematical basis to the combinations of frequencies that results in the theory of harmony. The same fractal effects pop up everywhere, including the shapes of mountains and natural objects owing to erosion etc.

When we hear music we might be experiencing a similar underlying mathematical structure to a mountainous terrain. But I’d be interested in how this theory might explain why I don’t like rap music.

Wed, 11 Jul 2012 00:19:08 UTC | #948879