To open our new topic of neuroaesthetics in class, we watched a video of the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran describe the peak shift principle [watch link below]. He used the peak shift principle to explain why humans appreciate and enjoy exaggerated pictures and paintings of the human body. The peak shift principle states that when we have an established response to specific stimulus, then we exhibit an increased response to exaggerated versions of that stimulus.

Peak shift principle originated with the Herring Gull Test. Female herrings have a red spot on their lower beaks. Baby herring gulls tap the red spot on their mothers’ beaks when they want to eat. The mother bird then regurgitates food into her chick’s beak. An ornithologist, Niko Tinbergen, discovered that chicks would also tap a red stripe on a yellow stick when hungry. The tapping was not necessarily triggered by the beak but by the red marking. Furthermore, when scientists offer baby seagulls a yellow stick with three red stripes, the chicks tap with proportional increased intensity to ask for food.


Ramachandran applies the peak shift principle to people’s appreciation of art:

“Imagine that seagulls had an art gallery. They would hang this long thin stick with three stripes on the wall. They would call it a Picasso, worship it, fetishize it, and pay millions of dollars for it, while all the time wondering why they are turned on by it so much, even though (and this is the key point) it doesn’t resemble anything in their world. I suggest this is exactly what human art connoisseurs are doing when they look at or purchase abstract works of art; they are behaving exactly like gull chicks. By trial and error, intuition or genius, human artists like Picasso or Henry Moore have discovered the equivalent of the seagull brain’s stick with three stripes.”

With the development of technology and social media, a new type of art that causes peopleUnknown.jpeg to gaze, gravitate, and even salivate has emerged: food porn. Just as more stripes on stick induces more pecking and an unnaturally tiny waist and broad hips on a sculpture stimulate greater attraction, the artificially plumped and beautifully photographed food advertised on Facebook, Instagram, and T.V. commercials may elicit greater cravings than regular food.

Food porn, also called gastroporn, has transformed our culture around food. Whether its professionals strategically building a burger for a picture [watch the link below!] or your friends instagramming filtered pictures of their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, we’re constantly swamped with photos and videos of tasty things. Researcher Charles Spence calls the rewarding act of just looking at food “visual hunger.” Visual hunger is based on the evolutionary principle of foraging. The goal of foraging is to find nutritious food, which primarily relies on our visual ability. Some even theorize that color vision was an evolutionary adaptation to help us find food. In addition to visual pathways, the attentional, pleasure, and reward systems all engage in the process of visual hunger. Therefore, when our visual pathways are hyper-activated by frequently exposure to beautiful food photos, our physiological experience of hunger is changed.


Food photos are type of “super stimulus”. In some people, viewing pictures of food can actually satiate and curb the desire to eat. However, when people are hungry, looking at pictures of food can cause increased cravings and usually for unhealthy food.  The brains of obese people and people with eating disorders are especially sensitive to the effects of food photography. Spence says that food porn “may well offer a substitute source of pleasure, while at the same time indirectly promoting overconsumption and gratification.” So, enjoy your taking and looking at pictures of food, but beware how the photos affect your brain!


Are the hamburgers you see on fast food commericals even real? Watch this! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xA14pAGW4UA

Learn to take better instagrams of your food! http://www.shape.com/healthy-eating/meal-ideas/9-ways-take-better-food-photos-instagram

More beautiful pictures of food: http://www.buzzfeed.com/h2/fbrh/alexnaidus/foods-that-are-more-beautiful-than-any-person-could-ever?utm_term=.aqaWGOaoY#.yor1Ng6RM

Ramachandran and the herring gulls: http://www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/human/ramachandran/#

Eating with our eyes: From visual hunger to digital satiation http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278262615300178

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