Human Nature in space and art




Many assumptions about body language do not hold up under research or are unreliable. The best way to spot a liar is just to listen to what they are actually saying. However, there are some universal reliable communicative body postures, “At the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games, athletes from all cultures made the same postures when they won: arms up in a high V, with the chin raised.” This was even the case for those who were blind from birth. The hunched shoulders of those who had lost was also universal.

Research by Dana Carney (University of California, Berkeley) and colleagues has shown that faking confidence or calmness can change the way we feel. The holding of powerful and weak poses for only 2 minutes before a gambling game with 50-50 odds lead to physiological changes in testosterone and cortisol respectively making one group more reckless and the other more cautious. (Psychological Science, vol 21, p143). Carney says “The feeling of power is not  just psychological: increased testosterone has been linked with increased pain tolerance, so power posing really can make us more powerful.”

“Carney points to studies showing that sitting up straight leads to positive emotions, while sitting with hunched shoulders leads to feeling down. There is also plenty of evidence that faking a smile makes you feel happier, while frowning has the opposite effect.”

(Caroline Williams ‘Lost in translation’ p34-37 New Sci 6 Apr 2013)


“This idea has been entertained by psychologists for more than a century. In 1890, the father of them all, William James, wrote: “Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike…The more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble. Recent research has put flesh on the bones of these musings. Neurobiologists such as Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California have demonstrated that emotions begin with actions – rapidly increased heart rate, for example – and end with perception of those actions – the sensation of fear or anger. Damasio calls this “body loop”: the brain learns of the body’s response to change via chemical and electric signals conveyed by the bloodstream and nervous system. Thus feeling follows behaviours; the mind follows the body.”

(Eric Finzi ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you’ p48 New Sci 19 Jan 2013 Review of ‘The Face of Emotion: How botox affects our mood and relationships’ Palgrave Macmillan 2012)



“Here’s a general definition by Bernard Suits at the University of Waterloo, Ontario: “Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. We agree on the unnecessary obstacles (rules) in order to make the game more interesting.”

“The games are about more than competition, though. Tribalism, for example, helps us identify with athletes because they represent our group. This identification gives us vicarious pleasure: it is not just fit people doing what they are good at, but affirmation that humans can do the near-impossible. If they can, we can. Uncertainty is also key. Pistorius is not so disabled that he has no chance, yet not so enhanced he is guaranteed a win.”

(Anders Sandberg ‘The new blade runner’ p26 11 Aug 2012)



The social context of humans affects our perception, but it has often been left out of studies on perception. There are ‘mirror neurons’ inside the brain that fire both when you move and when you see others move.

“It seems that we are not just observers of the social scene but that we automatically share the experiences and emotions of the people we are observing.”

“During any kind of social interaction people unconsciously imitate each other, or else show the appropriate complementary action and reaction.”

We look to come in to harmony with the other person in the way we move as well as what we say.

Our own personal models and analogies for the world are constantly reviewed by the feedback of our experience. We can switch between the automatic mirroring behaviour and the questioning/reflective behaviour. When these models and analogies are shared with others these models are “often more robust and longer-lasting than the individual models. We experience them through symbols and words, which work precisely because there is general agreement about their meaning.” “In the right context any object can become imbued with meaning.”

(Andreas Roepstorff, Chris Frith & Una Frith ‘How our brains build social worlds’ p32-33 New Sci 5 Dec 2009)


“Voluntary and reactive movements differ. Reactive moves are faster but less accurate.”

(Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2123).

(Debora MacLenzie, ‘He who draws last, draws his last breath’ p11 New Sci 6 Feb 2010)




A person with a healthy sized amygdala in the brain will have the edge of their personal space (that distance at which they still feel comfortable for a stranger to stand) at 0.6 metres. A study by Daniel Kennedy (IndianaUniversity in Bloomington) of an individual who had no fear showed she was happy with only 0.34 metres! (Nature Neuroscience, vol 12, p1226). He says “You have this physiological reaction when someone comes too close and invades your personal space, and the amygdala helps to create that. It’s almost like a car’s brakes – it helps to protect us by giving us the ability to regulate our distance.”

(Christie Aschwanden ‘The curious lives of the people who feel no fear’ p36-40 New Sci 9 Mar 2013)


This personal space can be changed. One example is Oxytocin in men. When they are exposed to this bonding hormone, men with partners feel more comfortable with a greater distance between themselves and an attractive women, than that distance for single men. (Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.2755-12.2012).

(In Brief ‘Oxytocin changes men’s behaviour’ p17 New Sci 17 Nov 2012)



“As Alexander J. Hahn explains in Mathematical Excursions to the World’s Great Buildings, “the Gothic concept of structure relied on geometric and numerical relationships and not on the considerations of loads, thrusts, and stresses.” Theologians thought of God as a geometer, and artists showed Him designing the cosmos with a compass. All that was necessary to engineer a sound building, architects believed, was the proper application of divine proportions.” In the case of Milan cathedral they got it wrong and had to add buttresses to keep the building up.

(Jonathan Keats reviewing ‘Mathematical Excursions to the World’s Great buildings’ by Alexander J. Hahn, Princeton University Press. 2012. p46 New Sci 14 Jul 2012.)



“Unlike termites and other nest-building incest, we humans pay little attention to making buildings fit for their environments. “We can develop absurd architectural ideas without the punishment of natural selection,” says architect Juhani Pallasmaa of the Helsinki University of Technology in Finland.”

(Philip Ball ‘Bright lights, bug city’ p 35 New Sci 20 Feb 2010)



George Gartner, (Vienna University of Technology in Austria and president of the International Cartographic Association) “argues that reading maps on cellphones can affect our spatial cognition. Small screens mean that we view less of a map’s context a once.” “A map on a mobile device or in a navigation systems leads to less accurate mental maps and a lower ability to act in the real world,”

Research by Toru Ishikawa at the University of Tokyo, Japan has shown that people perform better using paper maps than using digital maps on unfamiliar streets. “He found that those referring to their phones travelled more slowly, walked longer distances and were worse at working out their orientation than those using paper maps (Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol 28, p74).”

(Kate Austen ‘Where in the world…?’ p47 New Sci 19 Jan 2013)




Culture affects visual perception has shown that belief also does. The work of Bernhard Hommel at Leiden University, Netherlands has shown that Neo-calvinists were faster at picking out details of image than atheists. (PLoS ONE, DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0003679.)

(In Brief ‘When seeing really is believing’ p18 New Sci 22 Nov 2008)



Esther Sternberg (Chief of the Section on Neuroendocrine Immunology and Behavior at the US National Institute of Mental Health) has described how physical space can both enhance or damage health. A paper in “Science paper in 1984 hospital patients found to recover more quickly when looking out on trees rather than a wall.” It also found that yoga, sitting by the sea and a bright airy room, also worked. Precise figures for the amount of difference were missing however.

(Linda Geddes review of ‘Healing Spaces’ by Esther Sternberg p45 New Scientist 9 May 2009)


Research by Marina de Tommaso and team, University of Bari, Italy has found that art can affect not only emotional wounds, but also physical pain. “The subjects rated the pain as being a third less intense while they were viewing the beautiful paintings, compared with contemplating the ugly paintings or the blank panel.”

(In Brief ‘The agony and the ecstasy, or why bad art really is a pain’ p14 New Scientist 20 September 2008)


And when one is depressed ones visual abilities change. “People with the condition find it easy to interpret large images or scenes, but struggle to “spot the difference” in fine detail.” (Julie Golomb, Yale University, Journal of Neuroscience, DOI:10.1523/jneurosci.1003-09.2009)

(Jessica Hamzelou, ‘The world looks different if you are depressed’ p14 New Sci 28 Nov 2009)



“Why are we attracted to paintings and sculptures that seem to bear no relation to the physical world?….unique ways in which these masterpieces hijack the brain’s visual system. The studies are part of an emerging discipline called neuroaesthetics, founded just over 10 years ago by Semir Zeki of University College London……The blurred imagery of Impressionists paintings seems to tickle the brain’s amygdale, for instance, which is geared towards detecting threats in the fuzzy rings of our peripheral vision. Since the amygdale plays a crucial role in our feelings and emotions, that finding might explain why many people find these pieces so moving.”

“We certainly do have a strong tendency to follow the crowd. When asked to make simple perceptual decisions such as matching up a shape with its rotated image, for instance, people will often choose a definitely wrong answer if they see others doing the same.”

“Angelina Hawley-Dolan of Boston College, Massachusetts, responded to this debate by designing a fun experiment that played with her volunteers’ expectations of the pieces they were seeing……the creations of famous abstract artists or doodles of amateurs, infants, chimps and elephants. Then they had to judge which they preferred. A third of the paintings were given no captions, while the rest were labelled. The twist was that sometimes the labels were mixed up, so that the volunteers might think they were viewing a chimp’s messy brushstrokes when they were actually seeing an expressionist piece by Mark Rothko. Some sceptics might argue that it is impossible to tell the difference – but in each set of trials, the volunteers generally preferred the work of the well-accepted human artists, even when they believed it was by an animal or a child (Psychological Science vol 22, p435). Somehow, it seems that the viewer can sense the artist’s vision in these paintings, even if they can’t explain why.”

“Oshin Vartanian at the Univeristy of Toronto, Canada, for example, recently asked volunteers to compare a series of original paintings to a set in which the composition had been altered by moving objects around within the frame. He found that almost everyone preferred the original, whether it was a still-life painting by Vincent can Gogh or Joan Miro’s abstract Bleu I. What’s more, Vartanian found that manipulating the objects reduced activation in areas of the brain linked with meaning and interpretation (Neuro Report, vol 15, p893). The results suggest that our mind notes the careful arrangements and senses the intention behind the paintings, even if we are not consciously aware of the fact. It is unlikely, to say the least, that chimps or children would ever hit upon such carefully considered structures. That may explain why the volunteers in Hawley-Dolan’s study tended to prefer the work of the experienced artists.”

Work by Alex Forsythe, University of Liverpool, that many artists use a certain level of detail that hits a sweet spot in the minds ability process images. “What’s more, many pieces showed signs of fractal patterns – repeating motifs that reoccur at different scales, whether you zoom in or zoom out of a canvas (British Journal of Psychology, vol 102, p49)….It is possible that our visual system, which evolved in the great outdoors finds it easier to process these kinds of scenes…”

“Abstract art offers both a challenge and the freedom to play with different interpretations. In some ways, it’s not so different to science, where we are constantly looking for patterns and decoding meaning so that we can view and appreciate the world in a new way.”

(Kate Austen ‘In the eye of the beholder’ p43-45 New Sci 14 Jul 2012)



Doodles cannot be read, nor do they relate to mood or degree of distraction. (Epistimi, vol IV, p21).  When we daydream and doodle the default network gets very active. This network is assumed to sort memories, and scavenge information. Research has shown that those who doodled had 29% better recall than those who did not (Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol 24, p100) that “far from distracting them from the task at hand, doodling seemed to increase their concentration.” It may work by keeping our brains at the optimum level of arousal.

“Doodling seems to prevent the mind wandering into the most distracting territory. It could also stop us from dozing off.” Keeping us in the moment. [So it is like meditation. Also I have experienced doing the musical equivalent doodling.]

Sunni Brown the author of The Doodle Revolution champions doodling images that are very relevant to the context to increase the effect.

(Catherine de Lange ‘Superdoodles’ p56-57 New Sci 22/29 Dec 2012)



Some people can actually see coloured ‘haloes’ surrounding others. This seems to be a form of synaesthesia “a crossing of the senses” which associates emotions with different coloured light that they see surround people. An individual with Asperger’s disorder “was slower to identify blue letters when they were projected onto the volunteer’s blue halo than if they were projected elsewhere on the screen.” This effect could not be consciously faked and indicated that the perception of the colours was real. “Non-synaesthetes were as quick to identify letters regardless of their colour or placement (Neurocase,”

(In Brief ‘Haloes are real – what colour is yours?’ p13 New Sci 5 Jan 2013)



Fonts have been shown to influence attention, memory and views on politics. Work in 2010 by Danny Oppenheimer at PrincetonUniversity and his team “found that although groups presented with the list in an ornate font had a harder time reading it, they remembered far more details about the aliens than groups who read the same information in a plain typeface such as Times New Roman.”

The difficulty of the font affected the readers sense of their own abilities to comprehend the content therefore they progressed more slowly and thus recalled more. It may even offset confirmation bias. The harder it is to read the more thought they have to give to the content.

Jesse Lee Preston, University of Illnoiss at Urbana-Champaign reports that “Those who digested it in an easy font were more likely to report a view reflected their instinctive political leaning than the group given the text in a default typeface, who described the argument as complicated and subtle.”

fMRI studies by Stanislas Dehaene at the College de France in Paris and colleagues have shown that “When reading is easy, we skip the individual letters and instead turn the task over to the section of the brain devoted to pattern recognition. But when we trip over a word, it forces the brain to engage a different processing area: the dorsal parietal cortex, where the letter-by-letter reading mechanism is based says Dehaene. This area has also been linked with attention and memory.”

(Sally Adee ‘Typecast’ p68-69 New Sci 22/29 Dec 2012)



“We take longer to comprehend “I kick” than “I eat”, for instance, simply because the neurons that process sensations from the feet are further from the language centres than those of the mouth.” [So we kind of sense the meaning of the words through our bodies.]

“Considering how the brain embodies words – whether or not you have a strongly visual imagination, for example – might even explain a preference for  the vivid imagery in Jane Eyre over the wordplay of The Importance of Being Earnest.”

(David Robson “All in the mind’s eye” p47 New Sci 27 Oct 2012 review of ‘Louder Than Words; The new science of how the mind makes meaning’ by Benjamin Bergen, Basic Books 2012)




“Western language is full of spatial metaphors for time, and whether you are say British, French or German, you no doubt think of the past as behind you and the future as stretching out ahead. Time is a straight line that runs through your body. Once thought to be universal this “embodied cognition of time” is in fact strictly cultural.” However, a number of peoples have very different perceptions to this:-

The Aymara (Andes) the past is known so it is in front, and the future is unknown so it is behind (Cognitive Science, DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog0000_62).

The Pormpuraaw (Australia) the past lies in the east, and the future in the west. Thus ignoring the body (Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797610386621).

The Yupno (Papua New Guinea) the past is downhill towards the mouth of the river, and the future lies uphill towards the source of the river. Whilst within a hut the past is towards the door, and the future lies away from the door (Rafael Nunez of the University of California, San Diego).

Mandarin speakers (China) occasionally refer to the past as above, and the future lying below the feet. (Cognition, DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010).



Work by Vera Ludwig, Charite University of Medicine in Berlin, Germany has shown that both chimps and humans associate high-pitched sounds with brightness and low-pitched sounds with darkness (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1112605108).

“In 2001, V. S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard of the University of California at San Diego, asked adults to ascribe “kiki” and “bouba” to a spiky and a rounded shape. Regardless of culture or language, almost all dubbed the spiky shape kiki and the rounded one bouba. Children also find it easier to learn the names of rounded objects whose names use rounded vowels.” They suggest that the link between sights and sounds that was the origin of language was not arbitrary.

(Catherine de Lange ‘…but are their brains wired for language?’ p7 New Sci 10 Dec 2011)


“Heavier bowls even made people feel more full.” Also music affects the experience of food, such as louder music making crisps taste fresher. [This overlap of the senses shows the roots of our allegorical and metaphorical thinking.]

(Catherine de Lange ‘Feast of the senses’ p60-62 New Sci 22/29 Dec 2012)



The use of analogies is fundamental to how our minds work, in fact we create several at any moment, and put our trust in them. We assume that the pedestrian coming the other way will not push us into the road.

“Analogical thought involves the perception of important but often hidden commonalities between two mental structures, one already existing in our brain, representing some aspect of our past experience stored in an organised fashion, and the other one freshly constructed, representing a new circumstance in our lives. In essence, an apt analogy allows a person to treat something new as if it were familiar. If one is willing to let go of surface attributes and to focus on shared properties, one can take advantage of past knowledge to deal with things never seen before.”

“Language may convey analogies that are not rooted in language.”

Analogies are “fluid mental structures” that shift as we experience more, so the meaning of ‘mummy’ for a child eventually develops into the category of ‘mothers’ for the adult. They are therefore fundamental to learning. Also major scientists claim they have contributed greatly to the development of scientific thought. “The Hungarian mathematician George Polya wrote: ‘Analogy pervades our thoughts, our daily talk, and our most humdrum inferences, but it also pervades artistic expression and great scientific discoveries.”

Analogy is a device that leads to new ideas. These new ideas will not necessarily be right ideas, they will need to be tested.

Analogy is “irrational” and “subjective”, “but it is also the underpinning of rationality, objectivity and abstraction. Analogy is not a rare luxury of thought or an exotic, remote corner of cognition. Analogy is the entire transport system of thought… it pervades thinking, from throwaway remarks to deep scientific and artistic insights. All along the spectrum, analogy lets us see the new in terms of the familiar.”

(Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanual Sander ‘The forgotten fuel of our minds’ p30-33 New Sci 2013)


The brain may actually involve different structures to distinguish between allegory and metaphor. Midori Shibata and colleagues at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan “found that there was an increase in activity in the medial frontal region when processing similes, which may be linked to processes of inference. The right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) was more active for metaphors (Brain and Language, DOI:10.1016/j.bandl.2012.03.006).”

(In Brief ‘Simile is like a metaphor, not’ p16 New Sci 12 May 2012)


The bias of our own learned cultural sensory world could lead us to over emphasise the visual and underplay the acoustic or other senses of the world as experienced in the past.

Matthew Wright, University of Southampton, UK “thinks that some of the evidence brought for ancient acoustic effects is judged too harshly. If artefacts or monuments look good, then we believe with little hard evidence that they were designed to look good. Where interesting sound effects are heard, though, we dismiss them as flukes or demand evidence for acoustic purpose – perhaps because, in our noise-filled modern environments, we are far more attuned to visual cues than acoustic ones.”

(Trevor Cox ‘Past Echoes’ p44-47 New Sci 21 Aug 2010)


NUMBER LINKED TO SPACE – mental number theory

Mental number theory proposes that peoples who read left to right associate lower numbers with the left of the body and higher ones to the right. Research has even shown that if one leans to the left one makes lower estimates of quantities. (Psychological Science, DOI:10.1177/0956797611420731)

(In Brief ‘Leaning left leads to a reduced outlook on life’ p17 New Sci 10 Dec 2011)


However, one tribe has been found who are the exceptions as they do not map number on to space. (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035662). [Thus suggesting that this may actually be cultural, or at least shaped by culture.]

(In Brief ‘Brain may not be hardwired to link numbers and space’ p15 New Sci 5 May 2012)


“The so called SNARC (spatial-numerical association of response codes) effect is well established: people respond faster to a number (by pressing a button, say) with their left hand when the number is small and with their right hand when the number is large.” Thus illustrating that the sensory and physical experience is intertwining with the acquisition and retrieval of knowledge.

(Celeste Biever “Body over mind” p23 New Sci 12 Nov 2011)