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← Why do we find mountains beautiful?

Why do we find mountains beautiful? - Comments

SaganTheCat's Avatar Comment 1 by SaganTheCat

I think finding beauty in nature and having a sense of humour are both linked to our natural drive to learn which in itself has given us an evolutionary advantage

laughing is a reaction to discovery (what comedians call "pull back and reveal") as for beauty in mountains I suspect that has more to do with a larger love of big views.

in The Humans That Went Extinct by Clive Finlayson, the author talks about the changes in environments that led to the swift divergence of homo sub-species. most notibly the early change in our development as woodlands gave way to grasslands leading to our ancestors walking upright. He mentions an experiment involving children from a young age but varying ethnic backgrounds being shown pictures of different landscapes and something that humans almost all agree on is a love of wide open land.

mountains help give a sense of perspective and when viewed from a distance act as a fixed point of reference (like the stars) so another evolutionary advantage I can see from being drawn to views of mountains is that it might help you find your way home.

Humour is a funny thing...

I notice that I can watch a comedian on my own and think they're hilarious while not actually laughing but if i see them with friends at a club I'm unable to stop myself so that suggests something social is going on, shared laughter is a sign of cohesion. If you haven't read Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" type this into google:

"Daniel Dennett: There is a species of primate in south america" (took me to the google book)

that said, my cat Sagan has a sense of humour so I don't think it's purely human (unless it's purely human to think cats have asense of humour of course)

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 13:07:47 UTC | #948837

sheepcat's Avatar Comment 2 by sheepcat

The big problem here is there is no way to know whether people are born with a sense of wonder and beauty about specific things or if we are programmed by society to find beautiful those things that are presented as such.

It's the nature v nurture argument I'm afraid.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 13:13:01 UTC | #948838

goldencapuchin's Avatar Comment 3 by goldencapuchin

I am sure you're right that humour helps social cohesion, which we all need. How does your cat show his/her sense of humour?

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 13:23:46 UTC | #948841

SaganTheCat's Avatar Comment 4 by SaganTheCat

@sheepcat i'll have a look back at the Finlasyon book to get a refenence on this experiment but from memory it showed that preference for views of open landscapes seem to be innate rather than learned. I think it may have involved todlers who would not have ever seen views outside their own town


He probably doesn't have a sense of humour but he seems to enjoy doing things that make me laugh when i;'m watching. i am guilty of anthropomorphism

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 14:45:59 UTC | #948846

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 5 by Alan4discussion

Humans are territorial.

Hills and mountains give a good view of the landscape when looking down, and serve a reference points for navigation when looking up. They give reassurance about geographical positions. The big cats like places with a clear view out over their territory, as did the builders of castles in human history.

For urban dwellers, open country gives relief from the social pressure of crowded communities, clean air, and a move away from the usual work environment.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 15:50:16 UTC | #948848

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 6 by ccw95005

The short answer is, nobody has a good explanation. I have also wondered about this a lot.

One factor must have to do with selecting a mate - or appreciating beauty in the opposite sex - as you said, symmetry and clear skin being indicative of health and reproductive fitness. The reason that it's present in children and across gender lines is that although it may have been selected largely because of its utility in mate selection, it was probably easier for evolution to develop a general appreciation for beauty in the species than to work out how to make it specifically for sexual selection.

Once a trait is present, evolution often finds other uses for it. It's much easier to modify existing characteristics than to wait for a mutation for develop the same thing from scratch. So once this appreciation for beauty in humans was established for mate-selection purposes, presumably further mutations altered it and selected those variations that were useful. The pleasure we experience in observing a beautiful woman who is unavailable to us feels fairly similar to the pleasure we feel in seeing a beautiful landscape or figuring out some part of Einstein's theory or watching a great movie. There's pleasure and artistic appreciation of beautiful design in many areas, and somehow that's probably useful in devising solutions to problems, inventing better ways of doing things, and so on. Those feelings of exhilaration in the face of beauty and the desire to experience beauty also give us the energy and initiative we wouldn't have if all we were concerned with was survival.

It's mind boggling to try and understand how genetics controls so many personality characteristics by wiring our brains just so. Frustrating, but the effort is fun.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 16:26:27 UTC | #948850

geejay17nv's Avatar Comment 7 by geejay17nv

A quick search pulled up this (6 parter?)

From craggly peaks to windswept meadows to rolling hills to the open sea... beauty!

Even some 'ugly things' (a dead tree with entwined branches and limbs) can be 'artistically' defined as beautiful as well.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 18:05:11 UTC | #948858

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 8 by ZenDruid

I lived in an alpine valley when I 'fledged', being 5-7 years old, and my instinct was to wander uphill to obtain a grander perspective of my environment. The alpine skyline also provided a comforting visual border to my world, a sense of being embraced by the planet instead of simply being 'on' it, as I perceive the flatlanders' experience to be.

I believe that the sense of humor developed chiefly as an antidote to the instinctive fear reflex, as it plays out in everyday experience.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 18:07:52 UTC | #948859

Mr DArcy's Avatar Comment 9 by Mr DArcy

I used to have a house on the edge of the Fens in Suffolk, England. Flat as a pancake! But boy those skies could be magnificent! And close up, the plants weren't too bad either!

No, I have no idea why.

I have no idea why I like Bach's music so much, or Shakespeares plays, (The Hollow Crown recommended for those in UK, BBC website), Picasso's Weeping Woman, or Richard Feynman talking about things. Maybe it's something to do with the way they GRAB my attention, and each time in a different way, even though I'm familiar with them! If you can't enjoy a rock pool, enjoy a sand dune instead!

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 18:41:09 UTC | #948860

GerhardW's Avatar Comment 10 by GerhardW

Simple Thesis for preferring Hills over Lowland: Some of our Ancestors could have been faced with the Choice between warm, rich of Food, swampy Lowlands with a lot of Malaria, many predators and bad sight between the Trees. Or colder Hilland with less Food, less Predators, no Malaria, save Places in Steep Cliffs and a good sight for nearing Predators. Well, seems, that the hardwired love for higher Places was the better Gene.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 19:48:50 UTC | #948865

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 11 by ccw95005

I think our love of beauty is so wide ranging that its evolution wasn't as specific as preferring higher altitudes or whatever. After all, people have settled more in the lowlands than in the mountains, and we appreciate the beauty of Florida Everglades and Louisiana swamps, as well as sunsets and rainbows and clouds and storms and impressionist paintings and the Golden Gate Bridge and Gothic cathedrals. I see it as more of a generalized appreciation of harmonious colors and patterns, which appeal to us for God knows what evolutionary reason, and it's a small miracle that what we consider beautiful is as consistent as it is from person to person.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 20:01:30 UTC | #948867

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 12 by Alan4discussion

Some mountains are just awe inspiring, tinged with danger, and a sense of sheer size and power! Human curiosity leads people to explore and wonder.

The lava lake and volcanic ice caves in this series of pictures are very impressive and very dangerous.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 22:46:14 UTC | #948875

Pete H's Avatar 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

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 14 by BanJoIvie


Similarly, is anyone aware if any work has been done on why we have a sense of humour?

Not really what your looking for, but this question immediately made me think of the novel The Road to Mars by Eric Idle. It's a silly little comedy/sci-fi romp which mostly follows the adventures of a comedy duo who are traveling the show biz circuit through our future solar system.

This duo have a robotic secretary named Carlton who is obsessed with understanding the human concept of humor, and is traveling with his bosses as a means of researching his doctoral thesis on the subject. In the end his research posits the existence of a primary force in nature called "levity" which is the polar opposite of gravity, and exerts a generally expansive, uplifting effect on all matter in the universe.

Wed, 11 Jul 2012 01:55:43 UTC | #948880

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 15 by QuestioningKat

I have been meaning to read The Art Instinct beauty, pleasure, and human evolution, By Denis Dutton

Regarding humor, many companies and marketers have done studies/surveys on humor and one thing came out very clear. Men and women have different ideas about what is funny. Men tended to find some guy messing up or doing something stupid to be funny. A guy getting hit in the scrotum with a baseball and then falling to the ground clutching his privates... some other guy doing something stupid like flying into a lake with a riding lawn mower... any guys here fan of the Three Stooges. I hated when they all started hitting each other... Women on the other hand find situations funny. Walking out of the bathroom with the back of your skirt tucked into your panty hose or with toilet paper stuck to your shoe...a group of babies giggling at the same time.

Wed, 11 Jul 2012 03:18:29 UTC | #948882

VrijVlinder's Avatar Comment 16 by VrijVlinder

Nothing and I mean nothing is more beautiful than Everything in the Universe !! You just have to see these pictures from the space station by Dutch Astronout Andre Kuipers He spent months up there and his pics are just amazing !!

How do you know when something is beautiful? You look at it and your jaw drops long enough for flies to get in ... You get goose bumps,your mouth waters, you start to sweat, you think you are in a dream.. (you think you have seen god , of course this is how that got started lets not revisit that horrible mistake which still haunts us today.... )

Beauty is in the eye cones and rods of the beholder.

Wed, 11 Jul 2012 04:45:25 UTC | #948885

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 17 by ccw95005

A sense of humor, sharing a joke or laughing at something that happens, may have had some social benefits such as getting oneself laid.

I don't think we're the only species that likes to laugh. Chimps and other apes do, I believe, and the kind of play that dogs and otters and other animals do is funny to us and I suspect there's some equivalent in those animals to our delight in jokes and humor in general. Sure looks like they're having fun and almost smiling.

Wed, 11 Jul 2012 05:47:16 UTC | #948886

Sample's Avatar Comment 18 by Sample

@ comment 13 by Pete H,

I enjoyed reading that, thanks.


Wed, 11 Jul 2012 08:48:58 UTC | #948890

Al Denelsbeck's Avatar Comment 19 by Al Denelsbeck

Laughter, to some extent at least, seems to be a release of tension. And as others have said, there is a social aspect of it, even in babies. Some of our other emotions are the same, probably because it enhanced the cohesiveness of the tribe.

We take a rather disturbing amount of delight in the misfortunes of others, but this might be distantly related to the competition we engage in all of the time, vying for position in the tribe or amongst sexual competitors. The person who looks silly just removed some of the pressure from us to move ahead of them. It's a half-ass theory right at the moment...

As for beautiful landscapes and vistas, I started thinking some time back that it might have something to do with a drive to explore, to expand our territories. Most birds and many mammals, for instance, chase off the youngsters just before they reach the age of competing for food sources and mates, in order to protect the good situation that they have found for themselves. Humans, however, might have developed a different instinct to spread out on their own without (necessarily) being chased by the parents.

If you think about it, this seems to be almost universal, and has existed for a while. There's little actual reason to believe that that spot in the distance is somehow better than the one we're standing on, but we often look at travel as something very compelling. How many of us just "have to go somewhere"?

This might also be coupled with our curiosity, which seems to have some significant connections to our 'puzzle' drive. Perhaps the most distinctive difference in human brains is the ability to figure things out, even abstractly, and in the lack of anything really useful, we engage in crossword puzzles and murder mysteries. So the wide vista might represent something new and exciting, satisfying (however temporarily) our sense of discovery and the delight in new experiences. We see the river and wonder where it goes, or if the view is better from the other mountaintop. We see the expanse of water and wonder just how interesting it is on the other side.

Such an instinct can serve to accommodate growing populations, and likely helped us survive the various glacial events and sea-level changes throughout hominid history, when our ancestral ecological niches changed for the worse. And before the advent of agriculture and food storage, to some extent we had to travel with the growing seasons to maintain a balanced diet.

So perhaps the exhilaration that we feel when looking at landscapes has nothing to do with 'beauty,' but is instead a feeling of "That looks like fun! Let's go!" And we have it because it worked for us sometime(s) in the past when those that lacked it failed to survive the changing conditions.

[Link to personal blog removed by moderator]

Then again, I'm uneducated and just winging it, so this all might be turd balls.

Wed, 11 Jul 2012 18:13:27 UTC | #948911

aquilacane's Avatar Comment 20 by aquilacane

Most of us are biggests, we are overwhelmed by size. It's a psychological failing. It's why we are in awe of the size of the universe. Oh my gosh, it's so big, I just can't comprehend it so it must be grand and important.

Thu, 12 Jul 2012 16:18:50 UTC | #948979

bluebird's Avatar Comment 21 by bluebird

@ 5 Alan4

For urban dwellers, open country gives relief...

Reminds me of this groovy song :) link text

Thu, 12 Jul 2012 21:10:26 UTC | #948998

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 22 by Alan4discussion

Comment 21 by bluebird

Nice bit of photography at the link!

Thu, 12 Jul 2012 22:42:07 UTC | #949014

critusodem's Avatar Comment 23 by critusodem

It is relatively easy to understand why we find each other beautiful - symmetry being associated with health and therefore good genes, etc.

I do not think it is easy to understand why we find another human beautiful as a generality. Symmetry is only one of a quite a few factors and it can be influenced by other factors such as situation.

The more identical the immune system between two people, the less appealing the other person will be perceived. The greater the difference, the more appealing. I do not know if we know to what extent this can be detectable by a human. This type of detection may only be present by the female sex.

So, the positive value increases in proportion to the decrease of symmetry.

We do know why perfect symmetry would be a turnoff, however, if we are speaking in terms of easy to under then I believe a prediction made from this line of thinking would result in an error.

A side note on symmetry deeming mention: Perfect symmetry has a negative effect in respect to the beauty equation.

But why do we find things beautiful when they have no obvious survival or reproductive benefit


But why do we find things beautiful when they have no obvious survival or reproductive benefit

Why can we find things beautiful that have obvious survival or reproductive benefit, while those are not the reasons they are held as beautiful?

But why do we find things beautiful when they have no obvious survival or reproductive benefit

Why can we find candy bars and soda pop to taste so yummy, while having no obvious survival or reproductive benefit?

(e.g. the stars)? It would seem odd for it to be a neurological side-effect of finding each other attractive - especially since it is just as easily perceived by children before they are sexually aware, and perception of certain aspects of beauty doesn't seem to vary with gender, sexuality or culture.

So what is the evolutionary advantage to us in enjoying beauty in things that follow some underlying maths? This seems, if anything, even more weird.

I do not understand why enjoying beauty in things that follow some underlining maths needs to have an evolutionary advantage.

Similarly, is anyone aware if any work has been done on why we have a sense of humour?


Does the fact we can find concepts and ideas beautiful help you understand at all?

Please note I am not attempting to argue that "beauty exists therefore God exists", I am actually curious about the question.

I would hope not, due to the logical conclusion that soon follows when the fit of laughing ceases.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 06:46:31 UTC | #949036

Jumped Up Chimpanzee's Avatar Comment 24 by Jumped Up Chimpanzee

I think what is interesting is that we have a shared sense of beauty, just like we have a shared sense of humour or love of music (not always exactly shared, but you know what I mean).

These are all abstract things and I think that might be a key reason why it is an advantage.

If we were only able to socially interact by way of direct person to person communication, or over material objects, it would make our social interactions very intense and probably create a lot of conflicts within a group. Yet a shared interest in beautiful landscapes, humour, music, etc, allows us to create deep social bonds while our focus is not aimed directly at each other.

Just an idea...

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 21:35:56 UTC | #949124

Roedy's Avatar Comment 25 by Roedy

This is a prosaic answer. Mountains trap rain and direct it into streams. A mountain nearby means a source of year-round clean water. It is not going to be used for agriculture, so it means it will be preserved for growing firewood and hunting.

People want a mountain nearby. They don't want to be on one.

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 00:05:36 UTC | #949146

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 26 by ccw95005

Think we evolved to think the stars are beautiful because life is healthier there?

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 06:08:05 UTC | #949156

VrijVlinder's Avatar Comment 27 by VrijVlinder

I have a hypothesis, we vibrate (resonate) at certain frequencies and when we see or hear something that operates in the same frequency we identify with it and find it beautiful.

I find that shades of purple make me very happy or giddy. Purple is beautiful to me more than any other color.

Symmetry as stated has a lot to do with what we perceive as beautiful. Chaos is not generally beautiful. A Pollock painting is not beautiful to me because of the chaos. Kaleidoscope patterns are beautiful. Most likely because they are symmetrical patterns. Or repetitive like with Fractals .

At what extreme of ugly does something become beautiful ?

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 08:22:35 UTC | #949160

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 28 by Schrodinger's Cat

My own theory is that beauty is a direct result of intelligence. The problem with intelligent creatures is that they are liable to question their basic instinctive programming.......and see through the facade, for example the manner in which people are conned into perpetuating the species with the reward of relatively brief sexual pleasure. An evolutionary existential crisis thus arises. I think the evolutionary answer to this was to extend the illusion even further. We find the world beautiful because it provides the incentive to stay least long enough to perpetuate the species.

Tue, 17 Jul 2012 04:47:12 UTC | #949379

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 29 by ccw95005

When we were becoming homo sapiens, I think hunger was the incentive to find food, thirst was the incentive to drink water, fear was the incentive to fight off predators human and otherwise, and pleasure was the incentive to engage in sexual congress. Artistic incentives are a luxury of the leisure class.

I'm not sure exactly why evolution blessed us with a love of beauty, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't because it kept us from offing ourselves.

Tue, 17 Jul 2012 05:05:29 UTC | #949380

VrijVlinder's Avatar Comment 30 by VrijVlinder

So what you guys are saying is that beauty exists for sexual motivation?

relatively brief sexual pleasure

hmmm I'm not liking this, something wrong with brief....

pleasure was the incentive to engage in sexual congress.

or senate as it seems...

incentive to stay alive.

Beauty? Hmm if you were trapped amongst uglies you would find them beautiful after a while ;-)

Blessed by evolution ,

Let me think about that one...

Tue, 17 Jul 2012 05:40:13 UTC | #949381