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The Peekaboo Principle – by Robert Genn

The Peekaboo Principle

by Robert Genn

A few minutes ago I was watching a young couple staring at a huge abstract painting in a commercial art gallery. The painting was mysterious, dark, tentative--with perhaps, only perhaps, the whisper of a female figure. Previously, when I'd daringly checked out its very high price, a gallerista swept by and assured me, "We sell a lot of this man's work."

Now I'm sitting on a bench eating coconut ice cream while keeping abreast of brain science on my iPad. V.S. Ramachandran is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego. Looking into various brains, including the brains of people who look at art, he's come to the conclusion that things are better when they are less visible. He calls it "The Peekaboo Principle." In his research, it seems that girls in scanty clothing are more appealing to the average straight male than girls in the buff. To be fair, these findings have been challenged by every frat house west of the Pecos.

According to Ramachandran, concealment works because we are hardwired to solve puzzles. People get turned on by problem solving.

Further, curiosity is more arousing than the part where you get the message. This is how Ramachandran explains the popularity of abstract art. It seems our tiny perfect brains are forever on the lookout for wizardry. He thinks we are hardwired for what he calls "ultranormal stimuli." Yep, it's a bit like religion--many people crave the possibilities of the transcendent, the divine, the paranormal.

We have all thought about the mystery of why people desire such and such and not such and such. Some in the neuroscience business would have us all marching as zombies to the primordial echoes of our lizard or other cranial departments. Perhaps that's why it feels good once in a while to hear someone say they liked a painting of a barn because it's their barn.

The young couple in the gallery moved over to the desk. They happened to be maxed out on their card, but the gallery was just willing to take a cheque. "I don't know why we both love it," the young woman said. "But we're definitely taking it."

Best regards,


PS: "Perception is more like puzzle-solving than most people realize." (V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human)

Esoterica: Many artists tell me they are totally not interested in what makes people buy their art. Some are even not interested in why they make art in the first place. These people are known as "link challenged." I'm not one of them. Why did I choose the coconut over the Hawaiian Mud Pie? A lot of people were buying the HMP. For me, it was those little bits of coconut. They're hidden in there. Those little bits are not fully disclosed at the beginning. You have to find them as you go along. Oops, a drip.

Robert Genn has given ARTAZINE permission to post from his twice-weekly newsletter. For more of his valuable artistic insight, visit his blog at www.painterspost.com

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