Aesthetic pleasure requires partial familiarity

The toy plot below is inspired by Jurgen Schmiduber’s thesis on what we as humans seek when we seek aesthetic pleasure from information objects (visual art, music, movies, stories, etc.).

Partial familiarity is necessary in order to enjoy aesthetic pleasure from an object. At some level, this is pretty obvious. For e.g, a Mathematician may experience aesthetic elegance when reading a new theorem that a layman cannot, because the layman just isn’t familiar enough to be able to interpret it. At the other extreme, residents of even the most beautiful places on the planet cease to be overcome by the beauty of their surroundings because they grow accustomed to it. I think aesthetic pleasure therefore, is simply a state where the mind understands part of what it is shown, just enough, not too much, not too little.

  1. This explains why designers (fashion designers, graphic designers, industrial designers like those who decide what the next model of a car should look like, etc.) need to constantly innovate. People eventually get bored with designs that have been around.
  2. This is also the reason that retro designs sometimes make a comeback. Bell bottoms eventually fade from memory, and aren’t even familiar to those born in the 90s. A design is called ‘retro’ if has faded just enough from public memory to be partially familiar. Something that has completely faded from public memory is unlikely to make a comeback.
  3. One somewhat depressing consequence that the thesis above suggests is that we are constantly driven by a desire to find and consume new things that we are partially familiar with. That is, we want to move from the right edge of the plot to the middle. We cannot keep watching the same kind of movie, or TV shows, or wearing the same kind of clothes, etc. This suggests that the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure seems somewhat meaningless by itself. I told you it was depressing.
  4. There is some interesting work on why we find jokes funny, or, what makes a joke funny. Several jokes take two seemingly unrelated things and develop a new connection between them, for e.g. a pun. Here, the listener is familiar with part of the context in the joke, but there is something new. Once the joke has been heard, it looses its humor value, because it slowly moves towards the right edge of the plot above. Edward de Bono suggests about jokes:

The mind is a pattern-matching machine, and that it works by recognising stories and behaviour and putting them into familiar patterns. When a familiar connection is disrupted and an alternative unexpected new link is made in the brain via a different route than expected, then laughter occurs as the new connection is made.