Have you ever, in your countless hours scrolling through Facebook come across a gif? A gif is a short, repetitive video or picture that shows a short clip of some action. For example I am sure you have seen one of a puppy rolling around in the snow or an athlete wiping out in some capacity. Often times, these gifs are created with the intent for comedy, and are often accompanied by hilarious captions.
Now, with the understanding of a gif in mind, have you ever come across one that is so oddly and aesthetically satisfying that you find yourself mesmerized, staring at the same gif for 20-30min??
If you are struggling to understand why this short clip feels like a massage for your brain, look no further. I argue that these gifs are rooted in the art concepts of both symmetry and contrast, and that the reason behind the highly satisfying nature of these gifs is rooted in neuroaesthetics. For this blog I will focus on two highly satisfying gifs to explain my analyses.
To begin, lets take a look at a snap shot of the end of these gifs.
What do you notice about them? What is it about these pictures that are aesthetically pleasing? The symmetry. Both of these short clips end with a very symmetrical image as the last thing we perceive about the video. But what is it about symmetry that is so satisfying to us in the first place? The answer to this question is rooted in evolutionary biology. According to Ramachandran, almost all biologically important objects are rooted in symmetry. In his paper, The Science of Art, he explains that our brains may have used symmetrical objects as an early warning system against predators, due to the different symmetry’s animals possess (radial and bilateral symmetry occur in almost all species on earth) (1999). In addition, he also analyzes the work of many evolutionary biologists who examine how a parasitic presence creates unnatural and unsymmetrical looking growths in animal’s bodies. This, they say, explains why humans find symmetrical faces much more attractive than asymmetrical ones. It is in these biological roots that we find symmetry pleasing in many other contexts within our world, and it is why we find the ending to these gifs so satisfying.
Now I would like you to take a look at snapshot of the gif right before the gif is over.
What do you see? I believe it looks unfinished. Aesthetically, the gif creates contrast in the object. Contrast is something that can be incredibly pleasing to the eye, but also can be incredibly frustrating. Humans are creatures of patterns, and our eyes are hardwired to pick up on breaks in those patterns. In other words, we are adept at picking up contrasts. For example, this is how we are able to read. Our eyes are able to differentiate small changes in light, the edges of the words, and derive meaning from that. According to Ramachandran, this attention to contrast creates a sense of a more interesting object, and sometimes he believes that interpretation of interesting can mean pleasing.
So what purpose does it serve in these gifs? I believe it sets us up for an incredibly pleasurable experience. At the beginning of the gif, the contrast catches our eye, it draws us in, and is pleasurable to look. As the gif continues to play, and the contrast is resolved, our brains thoroughly enjoy the creation of symmetry due to the biological underpinnings explained before. It is in this contrast resolution that creates the satisfaction that makes you watch over and over and over. The contrast to symmetry is much like a composer striking an off chord right before the great resolve in the final moments of their piece. While the contrast is compelling and the symmetry is beautiful to look at, it is the combination of the two that creates utter visual bliss in our minds.
Ramachandran, V. S. & Hirstein, W. (1999). The science of art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, pp. 15–51.