Are human visual preferences older than humans themselves?

Our most recent paper shows that we (Homo sapiens) share our preference for curved contours with our closest living primate relatives: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). This suggests that such preference is not a unique evolutionary acquisition of our species. It seems, rather, that we inherited it from earlier primate ancestors – at least the common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, which lived in Africa some 7 or 8 million years ago.

The implication is that some of the building blocks of aesthetic appreciation – visual preference, in this case – might have a long evolutionary history in the primate lineage, predating the appearance of our own species by millions of years. Whatever the details of the origin of aesthetic appreciation, it seems it was the result of tweaking and integrating perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes common to many extant and extinct primate species.



Among the visual preferences that guide many everyday activities and decisions, from consumer choices to social judgment, preference for curved over sharp-angled contours is commonly thought to have played an adaptive role throughout human evolution, favoring the avoidance of potentially harmful objects. However, because nonhuman primates also exhibit preferences for certain visual qualities, it is conceivable that humans’ preference for curved contours is grounded on perceptual and cognitive mechanisms shared with extant nonhuman primate species. Here we aimed to determine whether nonhuman great apes and humans share a visual preference for curved over sharp-angled contours using a 2-alternative forced choice experimental paradigm under comparable conditions. Our results revealed that the human group and the great ape group indeed share a common preference for curved over sharp-angled contours, but that they differ in the manner and magnitude with which this preference is expressed behaviorally. These results suggest that humans’ visual preference for curved objects evolved from earlier primate species’ visual preferences, and that during this process it became stronger, but also more susceptible to the influence of higher cognitive processes and preference for other visual features.

Munar, E., Gómez-Puerto, G., Call, J., & Nadal, M. (2015). Common visual preference for curved contours in humans and great apesPLoS One, 10(11): e0141106

Upcoming conference: ‘Art and the Brain’

Art and the Brain: How Imagery Makes Us Human

McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

7th-8th December 2015


The Art and the Brain conference aims to encourage an interdisciplinary discussion between archaeologists, neurophysiologists and artists to develop current understandings and interpretations of non-verbal communication and the development of art in prehistory. Recent developments in the fields of neurophysiology and neuroaesthetics have highlighted the limitations, capacities and facilities of the brain with respect to our perception and cognition. These advances have thus created a platform for a new understanding of prehistoric visual imagery created by early Homo sapiens. Sessions at the conference will explore the use of colour, line and the concept of embodiment and fragmentation.

For more information regarding the conference, fees and registration, please visit the links below and for any queries, contact Sarah Evans ( The deadline for registering is 25th November.


Conference Summary

Conference Programme


Communicated by Sarah Evans and Liliana Janik