by Jordan Mansfield
Expanded version of an article originally written for and published by On Landscape magazine in August 2014.
When we view a landscape, there is an emotional response. This article is about the fundamental origins of these reactions—why do elements of a captivating landscape photograph, such as composition and lighting, give us particular emotions? Modern evolutionary theory can help to explain our reactions to such experiences, and reveals why emotional responses to the natural environment are largely universal among humans.1 This article demonstrates how human evolution has influenced—and ultimately provides the explanation for—our reaction to landscapes.
The Landscape and Animal Emotion
Evolutionary science describes how the process of natural selection forms an animal’s characteristics over time. If a small variation in the animal’s features—improved immunity, greater intelligence, and so on—provide it with a reproductive advantage by increasing its chance of survival, these genetic traits are more likely to be inherited. Over many generations, these characteristics can become widespread within a population, eventually defining a unique species as it adapts to an environment with particular resources, threats, and geographic features. The evolutionary process has produced the variety of animal life we see today, with each species able to live efficiently within their given habitat. From this view, any animal’s physical features and cognitive abilities are finely-tuned tools to ensure their survival and reproduction.
One set of tools are an animal’s emotional reactions, which have evolved to make an animal respond to experiences in such a way that its chances of survival are greatest. Regardless of their function today, these psychological systems would have contributed to an animal’s longevity in an ancestral habitat. In our species, activities such as learning new skills and eating nutrient-rich foods give us a feeling of pleasure, which motivate the actions upon which our genes’ survival would have—and often still do—depend. The emotions that direct our modern behaviour are deeply rooted in our past.
One evolved psychological attribute is the ability to assess an environment. Any living thing capable of physically moving must have some mechanism to select locations that are likely to provide what it needs, such as food, water, shelter, and protection from predators. In animals this mechanism exists in the form of a processing by the brain of information provided by the senses—predominantly vision. An immediate assessment of a landscape is a valuable tool if an animal is to maximise the chances of its genes’ being inherited.
As such, the mind has evolved to accurately use visual clues to aid the navigation of landscapes and make use of their contents. At a fundamental level, the brain subconsciously recognises unusual features such as parallel lines, symmetry and distinctive patterns, then collates them to build up an easily-interpretable map that develops an understanding of the surrounding environment.2 From such a foundation, many layers of complexity and refinement to this sense can evolve.
Taking this further, behavioural research has consistently shown that many animals possess an innate, highly specific ‘landscape preference’. One study, for example, has examined how species of mice choose between different habitats. When introduced to an outdoor enclosure containing a variety of environments, both wild and domestic groups repeatedly chose grassland areas in which the animal’s long-term survival is most likely, even with no prior experience of that specific landscape.3 Similar results have been observed in some bird species, who even maintain strong preferences for specific branches over others in which they have successfully lived.4 Responses such as these demonstrate how animals have adapted to immediately estimate the benefits and risks when faced with a potential habitat.
In humans, landscape preference has been studied extensively. Whilst our species is unique in its ability to live within such a diverse range of environments, it appears that we too have a universal preference for the features of a particular landscape. Repeated studies have tested what has been termed the Savannah Hypothesis, based upon the theory that modern humans should have a strong emotional response to features found within the environment in which our ancestors largely evolved.
The scientific consensus places this location in the East African tropical savannah, a landscape characterised predominantly by open grassland with scattered trees, bodies of water, frequent changes in elevation and distant views.5 As natural selection has guided human adaptation within this specific biome, responses to representation of its features in photographs should, it is argued, be expected.
One line of research has tested human preference for the savannah biome against four others (desert, deciduous forest, tropical rain forest, and coniferous forest). When groups of varying ages have been asked to rate a series of images for their desirability as a place to live and as a location to visit, savannah has rated significantly higher among younger ages. Importantly, researchers have recorded clear uniformity for this preference across cultures and continents.6 The results strongly support the hypothesis of an innate, universal preference for the landscape to which we adapted, particularly amongst those with fewer years’ exposure to other biomes.
The hypothesis also suggests that modern humans’ emotional responses to specific landscape features are influenced by signals of low- or high-quality tropical savannah. Researchers have even explored human preferences for certain tree types in photographic images. One study, which used a single species of acacia tree whose aesthetics vary significantly between different qualities of environment, found that tree shapes characteristic of a high quality savannah (multi-layered canopy and low branches) were much preferred over those found in low quality, dry savannah (dense and shrub-like). Tree shapes that enable easy climbing are also seen as significantly more attractive.7
The availability of essential resources is also likely to influence our emotional response to landscapes. That the presence of clear, flowing water is immediately satisfying may be due to the scarcity and unpredictability of this resource in typical savannah-like landscapes. The attraction humans feel to the sight and sound of rivers, waterfalls and lakes is unsurprising, particularly as frequent movement and discovery of new resources was a necessity for Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.8 Similarly, we also find the sight of vibrant plants attractive, perhaps for their potential as food sources, or as a signal that other resources are nearby.
The Savannah Hypothesis maintains that human preference is primarily influenced by our specific ancestral location. However, similar to other innate preferences, it appears that the strength of our inclination towards savannah biomes may be altered once we reach late adolescence, perhaps due to a complex emotional connection with a landscape in which we have lived for long periods.9 As such, other studies focus on the features to which we respond in any landscape. The spread of human species to other locations demonstrates the extent to which the adaptations that have allowed us to interpret the landscape to our advantage are well suited to human survival in a diverse range of environments.
Prospect of Resources and Refuge from Threats
One approach considers human responses to landscapes in terms of a need to balance the prospect of finding new resources with refuge from potential threats. In one study based on an analysis of landscape paintings, researchers concluded that the most attractive landscapes were those with a suitable trade-off between available resources such as food and water, and protection from predators and other dangers.10 For example, views that combine areas of elevated land, which were likely to have been vital in the search for other mammals, with environments such as groupings of trees or rocky outcrops that can provide a secure environment, are universally preferred by humans over scenes lacking such features.
This leads to an explanation for why landscapes containing expansive but protected views are immediately pleasing. A strong, stable foreground element gives an impression of sufficient refuge, whilst distant views to the horizon, with areas of contrast and intriguing geographic features in between, provide an element of prospect. These allow a comprehensive assessment of the landscape’s threats and potential resources from a safe location.
Images in which the arrangement of geographic features provide this balance provoke strong positive responses in humans. It may even be that our desire to frame images derives from this: a clear border surrounding a picture, or even a simple image crop, simulates the viewing of a scene from a protected space.
Reading and Navigating the Landscape
An additional approach builds on the hypothesis that an attraction to seeking new information about a landscape can facilitate our survival. When faced with any scene, the human mind attempts to accurately interpret its contents. Research suggests that the coherence of a scene plays an important role for this: the ease at which we can read and navigate the landscape affects the degree to which we find it attractive or compelling.11 As such, distinctive geographic features such as natural lines, mountain shapes and solitary trees may captivate us because of their importance in remembering and navigating the landscape.
Other studies have found that an element of mystery in landscape scenes is also considered attractive, which is likely to reflect a need for humans to explore more favourable locations or find new resources.12 A woodland path winding out of frame, or a glimpse of distant mountains, may evoke a strong emotional response by suggesting that there is more to be learned about an environment.
These views emphasise the importance of balancing interest with simplicity in artistic compositions (legibility of the landscape), the inclusion of strong natural or human-made features (an aid to navigation and memory), and mystery (the prospect of opportunity by gathering new information).
Weather and Lighting
It is not just the static features of a landscape that command our attention: we also respond to elements such as varying light levels and signs of changing environmental conditions. If their consequences were likely to affect a hunter-gatherer’s ability to survive, it is unsurprising that they can generate a heightened emotional response.13
Photographic images taken in situations when contrast is low—usually when the sun is high and light is diffuse—often appear uninteresting; popular images, conversely, are often taken during low light, close to the hours in which the sun rises and sets.15 This can be explained by how shadow and directional light from a low sun, or even direct sunlight at any time, allows us to more accurately read the landscape’s texture and depth. Geographic features that cause areas of high contrast (such as valleys or concentrations of trees and rocks) are also more likely to contain hazards (such as predators) and opportunities (such as potential shelter and resources), and our assessment of these features is aided by lighting that accentuates their presence. Consistent with this, research has found that modern humans universally find variable light levels significantly more compelling that uniformly lit spaces.16 Humans’ evolved perception of low light and high contrast as atmospheric and alluring is among the most important factors in much of popular photography and art.
This explanation for our attraction to high-contrast scenes may also extend to how we respond to certain seasonal changes, including those to which our ancestors would not have adapted. While it is unsurprising that modern humans appear to have a general preference for the warm, life-rich summer season over the depths of winter, scenes featuring snow-covered landscapes are considered attractive to look at. One explanation for this may be simply that the bright white of snow against darker features causes unusually high contrast that our brains have evolved to find captivating; additionally, snow isolates important geographic features, providing a more easily interpretable scene.
Our evolved emotional responses are profoundly influential in our initial reaction to a landscape scene. Subconsciously, our minds are always asking: How should I respond to this view? The emotions generated are designed to guide our behaviour, facilitating our survival within a specific habitat. Evolutionary science does not necessarily tell us what to include in artistic compositions, but it can reveal why we react in certain ways to various stimuli. Its inquiry offers fundamental explanations for why we are captivated by—or dislike—individual scenes and the features within them.
1. An overview of contemporary evolutionary psychology: Buss, 2005.
2. Human visual cognition: Pinker, 2003.
3. Wecker, 1963.
4. Klopfer, 1963.
5. Evolved responses to landscapes: Orians & Heerwagen, 1992.
6. Some of the most prominent research into landscape preferences has been carried out by Balling & Falk, including: Balling & Falk, 1982, and Balling & Falk, 2009.
7; 8. Orians & Heerwagen, 1992.
9. Balling & Falk, 1982.
10. Appleton, 1975.
11. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982.
12; 13; 14; 15. Orians & Heerwagen, 1992.
16. Aldworth, 1971; Flynn, et al., 1973, cited in Orians & Heerwagen, 1992.
Aldworth, R.C. 1971. Design for variety in lighting. Lighting Research and Technology, 3(1), 8-23.
Appleton, J. 1975. The Experience of Landscape. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.
Balling, J. D., Falk, J. H. 1982. Development of visual preference for natural environments. Environment and Behaviour, 14, 5–28.
Balling, J. D., & Falk, J. H. 2009. Evolutionary influence on human landscape preference. Environment and Behaviour, 42(4), 479–493.
Buss, D. M., ed. 2005. The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Flynn, J. E., Spencer, T. J., Martyniuk, O., & Hendrick, C. 1973. Interim study of the procedures for investigating the effect of light on impression and behaviour. Journal of the Illuminating Engineering Society, pp. 87-94.
Kaplan, S., Kaplan, R. 1982. Cognition and environment: Functioning in an uncertain world. New York: Praeger.
Klopfer, P. H. 1963. Behavioural aspects of habitat selection: The role of early experience. Wilson Bulletin, 75, 15–22.
Orians, G. H., Heerwagen, J. H. 1992. Evolved Responses to Landscapes. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pinker, S. 2003. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. London: Penguin Books.
Wecker, S. C. 1963. The role of early experience in habitat selection by the prairie deermouse. Peromyscus maniculatus bairdi: Ecological Monographs, 33, 307–325.