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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Aesthetic experience is influenced by causality in biological movements


People watching is a ubiquitous component of human activities. An important aspect of such activities is the aesthetic experience that arises naturally from seeing how elegant people move their bodies in performing different actions. What makes some body movements look better than others? We examined how visual processing contributes to the aesthetics experience from seeing actions, using point-light “creatures” generated by spatially scrambling locations of a point-light walker’s joints. Observers rated how aesthetically pleasing and lifelike each creature looked in a video of the creature moving from left to right. They viewed four kinds of creatures: The joints’ trajectories were either from an upright walker (thus exhibiting gravitational acceleration) or an inverted walker (thus defying gravity) and were either congruent to the direction of global body displacements or incongruent (as in the moonwalk). Observers gave both higher aesthetic and animacy ratings for creatures with upright versus inverted trajectories, and congruent versus incongruent movements. Moreover, after regressing out the influence of animacy, the creatures that move in a natural causal manner (in accordance with gravity and their body displacements) were still preferred. The subtle differences between different kinds of creatures suggest a role of automatic perceptual mechanisms in these preferences. Thus, while our thinking minds may enjoy watching the magical moonwalk, our automatic minds, with a taste for causality, may curtail the impression of its visual beauty.

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