Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Appeal of Symmetry

Recently NPR reported a new study that looked at babies’ preferences for different artists. Given the choice of Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, and Picasso, they consistently preferred Picasso. When it comes to taking interest in the outside world, nothing is more important to babies than facial expression. A balloon with a smiley face will hold their attention until the face is turned away. Other recent research showed that caricatures that emphasize certain features elicit a stronger response than the face itself. The exaggerated expressions in Picasso would obviously be most appealing. The information given by a face is the most important early information we learn because it enables us to see how others are feeling. Mirror neurons fire in simulation of the expression inside so we feel the state we see. A contempt face on another person will make our heart race whether acknowledged or not. It may be that the appeal of symmetry in the human face has more to do with the expression than the features. We’re all pretty symmetrical in the arrangement of our features when we’re relaxed or happy, content and focused. Negative emotions tend to twist the face out of shape, the sneer that raises one side of the mouth, disgust that pulls one side down. Faces that are critical, skeptical, angry or sad each twist the natural symmetry of our features. Thich Nhat Hnan wrote, “Whenever anger comes up, take out a mirror and look at yourself. When you are angry you are not very beautiful…Hundreds of muscles in your face look very tense”. He advises us to breathe and smile mindfully to return to natural beauty. Often when I talk with a class about this, pointing out that negative emotions are what make people unattractive because the tension in those muscles pulls the face out of symmetry, someone knows a person with the features to be beautiful, but isn’t, because the person was mean or paranoid or some other unpleasant characteristic that pinched up the face. Pain also distorts our symmetry. I was intrigued to read in a “Scientific American-Mind” magazine that early pleasure in symmetry connected to health. What is too much off symmetry and out of balance is associated with disease.
The approach to symmetry underlying my recent work begins with the intersection of wave fronts that create interference patterns. Thinking about vibrations and formative influences as much as I have over many years I’ve come to think of matter as a very condensed and complex interference pattern. A picture of a swimming pool during the earthquake showed waves that form at the sides meeting in the middle and becoming an interference pattern of standing waves where they appeared to hold still, frozen until the energy pattern that stimulated it changed. Like the eye of Jupiter maintains its shape even though it’s a clot of churning gases, so we humans could be a constant flow of energy not as solid as we think, a density in the continuous field of energy that includes everything.
We humans and most organic life are slightly off symmetry, but balanced around an axis that holds its shape until the supporting systems break down. If something is too ordered it stops moving. Excess in any area will throw off the balance. Playing with that tension is a way of exploring what may be a primary principle of visual philosophy. The symmetry in our bodies is a model for the mirroring of external expression. Accurate internal mirroring of what we see is the essence of understanding and foundation of communication.

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