Neuroaesthetics and Ramachandran's Eight Laws (for Product Design)

Published 17 days ago • 19 min read

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Neuroaesthetics is an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience and aesthetics to understand how our brains perceive and appreciate beauty. It explores the neural mechanisms behind our responses to art and design, providing critical insights into why certain visual experiences are universally appealing. For entrepreneurs, a basic understanding of neuroaesthetics can offer frameworks and tactics that enhance user engagement, customer satisfaction, and the overall marketability of their products.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, renowned neuroscientist and the Director of UCSD’s Center for Brain and Cognition, is a pioneer in the field of neuroaesthetics - particularly how the human brain perceives and appreciates art. One of Ramachandran’s most significant contributions to the field is the Eight Laws of Artistic Experience, outlined in the 1999 paper, “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience,” co-authored with William Hirstein. In it, they explain how certain artistic principles resonate with the human brain, delving into the cognitive underpinnings of aesthetic appreciation, and offering a scientific basis for the creation of visually and emotionally-compelling designs.

In this article, we will explore each of Ramachandran’s eight laws, the neurological mechanisms that underpin them, experiments that illustrate their efficacy, and their applications in successful product designs - with notable examples from contemporary packaging and digital interfaces.

By understanding the cause and effect of these principles, entrepreneurs can be better equipped to build products that are more visually-appealing, functionally-superior, and emotionally-engaging.

Ramchandran’s Eight Laws of Artistic Experience

  • Peak Shift: Enhanced response to exaggerated stimuli.
  • Perceptual Grouping: Grouping similar elements together.
  • Isolation: Emphasizing a single element.
  • Contrast: Enhancing elements by making them stand out.
  • Symmetry: Preference for symmetrical objects.
  • Perceptual Problem Solving: Enjoyment from solving visual puzzles.
  • Abhorrence of Unique Viewpoints: Preference for familiar perspectives.
  • Visual Metaphor: Using visuals to represent abstract ideas.

Law #1: Peak Shift Principle

The Peak Shift Principle posits that exaggerated stimuli can evoke a stronger response than the original stimulus. Consider the following caricature of former US president, Richard Nixon, versus a photograph.

The science behind the peak shift principle originates from numerous animal discrimination learning studies, where it has been observed that animals trained to distinguish between two stimuli respond more strongly to an exaggerated version of the rewarded stimulus rather than the original.

In one such study by psychologist Richard Herrnstein, the researchers trained rats to discriminate between a rectangle and a square, rewarding the rats for selecting the rectangle. After the training, the rats were again tested with both the original shapes and a new shape, a longer and thinner rectangle. Remarkably, the rats showed a stronger preference for the exaggerated rectangles over the original rewarded ones. This preference indicated the peak shift effect, as the rats responded more vigorously to an exaggerated version of the rewarded stimulus.

Peak shift is moderated by dopaminergic pathways in the brain’s reward system. When an exaggerated stimulus is perceived, these pathways become more activated, resulting in heightened pleasure and reward responses. The visual cortex processes the enhanced features of the stimulus more robustly, creating stronger neural representations. This amplified neural activity makes the exaggerated features more salient and appealing. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-order cognitive functions, then integrates these enhanced sensory inputs, further reinforcing the preference for hyper-stimuli.

By leveraging these neural mechanisms, designers can create products that not only attract attention but also foster deeper, more engaging consumer interactions, tapping into the brain’s inherent tendency to favor heightened versions of familiar, rewarding stimuli. You can see this in exaggerated design attributes, such as the sleekness of a car or the vividness of a color scheme, that often make products more appealing and memorable. By emphasizing these enhanced features, products capture attention more effectively, differentiating themselves in a crowded market.

In packaging, vibrant and exaggerated colors or shapes can make a product more noticeable on a shelf. Take the example of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.

  • Exaggerated Colors: The packaging often features bright, exaggerated colors like vivid oranges, yellows, and blues that are more saturated than those found in nature. These exaggerated colors attract attention and stand out on the shelf.
  • Exaggerated Mascot Features: The character Tony the Tiger is designed with exaggerated features - large, friendly eyes, a big smile, and an athletic build. This is an enhanced version of a tiger that is meant to be more appealing and engaging for children.
  • Exaggerated Fonts and Shapes: The text on the box, such as the brand name “Frosted Flakes,” is often in bold, dynamic fonts with sharp contrasts. This further grabs attention and makes the product look exciting and fun.

In digital interfaces, exaggerated visual feedback or animations can enhance user engagement. Consider the example of the Facebook “Like” button.

  • Exaggerated Iconography: The “Like” button uses a thumbs-up icon, which is a simplified and exaggerated symbol of approval. This is more impactful and immediately recognizable than a more realistic hand gesture.
  • Exaggerated Colors: When a user clicks the “Like” button, it changes to a bright blue color. This color change is more vivid and noticeable compared to the default grey or white, creating a strong visual contrast.
  • Exaggerated Feedback: On mobile devices, pressing the “Like” button often triggers a small animation, such as the button expanding slightly or emitting a burst of color. This exaggerated feedback reinforces the action and makes it more rewarding.

Law #2: Perceptual Grouping

Perceptual Grouping refers to the cognitive processes by which the brain organizes sensory inputs into coherent and unified percepts. Take the example of the dotted image of the dog below.

Perceptual grouping and binding is fundamental to understanding how we perceive complex scenes and objects as whole entities rather than disjointed parts. One notable example is the work of Max Wertheimer, a founder of Gestalt psychology, who showed his study participants a series of dots arranged in a grid on a screen. The dots were spaced at varying distances, creating columns and rows. In one condition, the dots were equidistant from each other, making it difficult to perceive any specific grouping. In another condition, the dots were spaced closer together vertically than horizontally. Remarkably, participants consistently reported seeing vertical columns rather than individual dots or horizontal rows. This perception indicated the law of perceptual grouping by proximity, as the participants’ brains naturally grouped the closer dots into vertical columns.

This process happens in the visual cortex, the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information. Neurons in this area detect basic features like edges, colors, and shapes. Then, higher brain areas, like the parietal and temporal lobes, combine these features based on rules like proximity (things that are close together), similarity (things that look alike), and continuity (things that form a continuous line). These grouping rules help the brain quickly and efficiently make sense of complex scenes, allowing us to recognize objects and navigate our environment effortlessly. So, when you see a forest, you perceive it as a collection of trees rather than millions of individual leaves, thanks to your brain’s incredible ability to group visual information.

In product design, perceptual grouping and binding principles are crucial. Designers use these principles to create visually appealing and easily understandable products. In packaging, perceptual grouping can create a sleek and organized appearance, enhancing user experience and brand perception. Take the example of Apple’s product boxes.

  • Grouped Elements: Apple’s packaging groups related items together, such as the device, accessories, and documentation, in a neat and orderly fashion. This organization makes it easy for users to find and access everything they need.
  • Consistent Layout: The packaging design maintains a consistent layout with minimalistic aesthetics, using clean lines and ample white space. This consistency across products reinforces brand identity and makes the packaging instantly recognizable.
  • Visual Hierarchy: Apple emphasizes important elements, such as the product image and brand logo, by placing them prominently and using high-quality images. This visual hierarchy guides the user’s focus and enhances the unboxing experience, making it feel premium and thoughtful.

In digital interfaces, perceptual grouping enhances user experience by organizing content in a logical and visually appealing manner. Consider the example of Google’s homepage:

  • Grouped Elements: The search bar, buttons, and logo are centrally grouped, making the interface simple and easy to use.
  • Consistent Layout: Google uses a consistent color scheme and layout across its services, allowing users to quickly recognize and navigate its various features.
  • Visual Hierarchy: Important elements like the search bar are prominently placed, guiding the user’s focus and making the experience more efficient.

Law #3 Isolation

The Law of Isolation, also known as the principle of simplicity, states that an element stands out more when it is distinct from its surroundings. Consider this single red rose in a field of white daisies.

In one isolation experiment conducted by psychologist Anne Treisman, participants were asked to identify a target letter “T” among a field of distractor letters “L” on a computer screen. Initially, the target and distractors were all the same color, making the task challenging as participants had to carefully scan each item. In a subsequent phase of the experiment, the target “T” was presented in a different color from the distractors. Remarkably, participants were able to identify the target much more quickly and accurately when it was isolated by color. This preference indicated the power of the law of isolation, as the distinct color made the target letter stand out from the background, drawing immediate attention and facilitating quicker identification.

The Law of Isolation is rooted in the brain’s preference for simplicity and clarity, making isolated or simplified elements more noticeable and memorable while reducing the cognitive load that comes with complexity. The visual cortex processes the distinct features of the isolated element more efficiently, while the attentional networks, particularly those involving the parietal and frontal lobes, enhance focus on this unique stimulus. This selective attention mechanism ensures that the isolated element captures cognitive resources more effectively, making it more prominent in perception and memory.

In product design, isolation is utilized to create standout features that capture consumer attention. In packaging, isolation can make a product more noticeable on a shelf. Take the example of Tiffany & Co.’s iconic blue box.

  • Distinctive Color: The packaging features a unique and recognizable shade of blue, known as Tiffany Blue, which is distinct from other colors typically found on packaging. This isolated color immediately captures attention and stands out.
  • Minimalist Design: The box design is simple and uncluttered, with minimal text and decoration. The lack of competing elements allows the color and the brand name to be the focal points, enhancing the sense of luxury and exclusivity.
  • Prominent Logo: The Tiffany & Co. logo is placed centrally and prominently on the box, isolated from other text or graphics. This focus on the logo reinforces brand recognition and ensures it is the most noticeable element.

In digital interfaces, isolation enhances user experience by drawing attention to key elements and simplifying navigation. Consider the example of Spotify’s music player interface:

  • Minimalist Design: The interface features a clean, dark background with minimal distractions. This isolation highlights the central elements such as the play button and track information, making them stand out and easy to locate.
  • Focused Controls: The playback controls are isolated at the bottom center of the screen, away from other interface elements. This positioning ensures that users can quickly find and use these essential controls without distraction.
  • Prominent Artwork: The album artwork is displayed prominently in the center of the screen, isolated from other text and graphics. This focus on the artwork enhances the visual appeal and makes it immediately recognizable.

Law #4: Contrast

The Law of Contrast posits that elements with stark differences are more noticeable and memorable. Consider this yellow umbrella in a sea of black ones.

The science behind the Law of Contrast is supported by numerous studies in visual perception, showing that contrasting elements capture attention more effectively than similar ones.
In one study by psychologists Solomon Asch and Paula Ebenholtz, participants were asked to evaluate the brightness of a gray square on a white background. Initially, the gray square was presented alone, and participants rated its brightness. In a subsequent phase, the same gray square was placed on a black background. Remarkably, participants rated the gray square as significantly lighter when it was on the black background compared to when it was on the white background. This difference in perception indicated the law of contrast, as the contrasting background colors altered the perceived brightness of the gray square. This experiment demonstrated how contrast enhances the salience of visual elements, making them appear more distinct and influencing our perceptual judgments.

Contrast is processed in the brain through the visual cortex, where neurons respond to varying levels of brightness and color. These contrasting elements generate stronger signals, making them stand out more in our perception. The attention networks, particularly in the parietal and frontal lobes, then focus on these differences, ensuring that contrasting features are prioritized and processed more thoroughly.

In product design, the Law of Contrast is crucial for creating visually striking and functional products as it aligns with the brain’s natural tendency to notice and prioritize distinct differences, making products more engaging and memorable. In packaging, contrast can make a product more noticeable on a shelf. Take the example of Oreo cookies.

  • High-Contrast Colors: The packaging features a striking combination of dark blue and bright white, creating a strong visual contrast. This color scheme makes the package stand out against other products and draws the eye to the Oreo brand.
  • Bold Logo: The Oreo logo is prominently displayed in white against the dark blue background, enhancing readability and ensuring it captures attention. This high-contrast design reinforces brand recognition and makes the product easily identifiable.
  • Vivid Product Images: The packaging includes images of the cookies themselves, with the dark cookies and white cream filling vividly contrasted. This visual representation emphasizes the product’s key attributes and makes it more appealing to consumers.

In digital interfaces, contrast enhances user experience by making important elements stand out and improving readability. Consider the example of Netflix’s user interface:

  • High-Contrast Colors: The interface uses a dark background with bright red highlights for key elements such as the Netflix logo, navigation bar, and action buttons like “Play” and “Add to My List.” This high contrast makes these interactive elements easily noticeable and accessible.
  • Prominent Thumbnails: Movie and TV show thumbnails are displayed with vivid, high-contrast images that pop against the dark background. This visual contrast makes it easier for users to browse and select content.
  • Highlighted Navigation: When users navigate through the menu, selected items are highlighted in a brighter color or with a bold outline. This clear visual feedback ensures that users can easily see which option they are focusing on.

Law #5: Symmetry

The Law of Symmetry refers to the cognitive preference for symmetrical patterns, which are perceived as more orderly and aesthetically pleasing. Consider the example of the two faces below.

The Law of Symmetry is fundamental to understanding how we perceive objects and scenes as balanced and harmonious. In one experiment by Chris McManus at University College London, participants were shown pairs of images (faces, objects, and abstract shapes), one symmetrical and the other asymmetrical. Participants were then asked to rate the attractiveness of each image. Consistently, the symmetrical images were rated as more attractive than their asymmetrical counterparts. Eye-tracking data revealed that the participants spent more time looking at the symmetrical images, indicating higher visual interest. While brain imaging during the experiment showed increased activity in areas associated with visual processing and reward when participants viewed symmetrical images. This underscores that our brains are wired to process symmetrical patterns more efficiently and prefer the intrinsic appeal of symmetry.

This processing of symmetry arises in the visual cortex, the region of the brain responsible for processing visual information. Neurons in this area detect symmetry by comparing the mirrored halves of an image. Higher brain areas, such as the parietal lobes, further integrate this information, enhancing the perception of symmetry. This efficient processing of symmetrical patterns allows the brain to quickly and effortlessly make sense of complex scenes, promoting a sense of order and predictability.

In product design, the Law of Symmetry is crucial for creating visually appealing and functional products that capture attention, convey a sense of reliability, and foster positive consumer interactions. In packaging, symmetry can create a sense of balance and harmony, making a product more appealing and easier to recognize. Take the example of Toblerone chocolate:

  • Symmetrical Shape: The packaging features a triangular prism shape, which is symmetrical along its length. This unique, balanced shape makes Toblerone easily identifiable and visually appealing.
  • Symmetrical Design Elements: The layout of the packaging includes the brand name and logo centered along the top edge of the triangle, with symmetrical patterns and colors on both sides. This symmetry creates a clean and organized look.
  • Consistent Branding: The text and images are aligned symmetrically, enhancing the overall aesthetic and making the product stand out on the shelf. This balanced design reinforces brand identity and makes it easier for consumers to recognize the product.

In digital interfaces, symmetry can enhance user experience by creating a balanced and harmonious layout. Consider the example of Instagram’s user profile page:

  • Symmetrical Layout: The profile picture is centrally aligned at the top of the page, with the username and bio directly beneath it. This balanced arrangement creates a visually appealing and organized appearance.
  • Consistent Design Elements: The layout of posts, followers, and following counts is symmetrically arranged on either side of the profile picture, maintaining a consistent and balanced design. This symmetry helps users quickly locate and navigate different sections.
  • Visual Hierarchy: Important elements like the “Follow” button and key statistics are prominently placed near the top and center of the page. This strategic placement ensures these elements capture the user’s attention first, enhancing the overall user experience.

Law #6: Perceptual Problem Solving

The Law of Perceptual Problem Solving says that engaging viewers in some level of perceptual or cognitive challenge can enhance their aesthetic experience and satisfaction. Consider the famous Where’s Waldo images that ask the viewer to find Waldo in large group of people.

In one experiment conducted by psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, participants were shown a series of incomplete and ambiguous images that required some mental effort to interpret. Initially, these images were difficult to understand, but as participants spent more time analyzing them, they were able to identify the underlying figures and patterns. Remarkably, participants reported higher levels of satisfaction and engagement when they successfully resolved the ambiguity in the images. This preference indicated the power of the law of perceptual problem solving, as the cognitive challenge and the subsequent reward of solving the visual puzzle created a more enriching experience.

The Law of Perceptual Problem Solving is rooted in the brain’s preference for engaging and mentally stimulating activities. The visual cortex processes the complex elements and ambiguities of the stimulus, while the prefrontal cortex and other higher-order brain areas work to resolve these challenges. This engagement of cognitive resources not only enhances focus and attention but also activates the brain’s reward system, particularly the dopaminergic pathways, leading to increased pleasure and satisfaction upon solving the perceptual problem.

In product design, perceptual problem solving is utilized to create interactive and engaging experiences that capture consumer attention and foster deeper engagement. In packaging, perceptual problem solving can make a product more intriguing and memorable. Take the example of Rubik’s Cube packaging.

  • Interactive Design: The packaging often incorporates elements of the puzzle itself, inviting consumers to engage with it even before opening the box. This interaction creates an immediate cognitive challenge and interest.
  • Clear Instructions: While the cube is complex, the packaging provides clear yet minimalistic instructions, encouraging users to solve the puzzle without overwhelming them.
  • Visual Complexity: The vibrant and distinct color scheme of the Rubik’s Cube is visually engaging, adding an element of perceptual challenge as users work to align the colors.

In digital interfaces, perceptual problem solving enhances user engagement by providing interactive elements and challenges. Consider the example of Duolingo’s language learning app:

  • Gamified Learning: The app uses gamification techniques, presenting language exercises as interactive challenges that users must solve. This approach makes learning more engaging and rewarding.
  • Progress Indicators: Clear indicators of progress and achievement provide users with a sense of accomplishment, reinforcing the satisfaction from solving language challenges.
  • Interactive Feedback: Immediate feedback on answers, including corrections and encouragement, helps users learn from their mistakes and keeps them engaged in the learning process.

Law #7: Abhorrence of Unique Viewpoints

The Law of Abhorrence of Unique Viewpoints suggests that the brain prefers familiar perspectives over novel or unique ones, as familiar views are easier and faster to process. Consider how much more recognizable the Eiffel Tower is from a familar view rather than from above.

In one experiment conducted by psychologists Isabelle Biederman and Paul Gerhardstein, participants were asked to recognize everyday objects presented in typical and atypical viewpoints. Initially, participants viewed objects from a common angle, like a side view of a car. Later, they were tested on their ability to recognize these objects from both familiar and unusual perspectives, such as an overhead view. Unsurprisingly, participants were much faster and more accurate at recognizing objects from familiar viewpoints than from novel angles. This finding highlights the brain’s preference for familiar perspectives that require less cognitive effort to process.

This principle is rooted in the brain’s visual processing mechanisms. The visual cortex, particularly areas involved in object recognition like the lateral occipital complex, is more efficient at processing familiar views. The brain’s reliance on stored representations and past experiences enables quicker identification and understanding of familiar stimuli. The prefrontal cortex also plays a role in managing the cognitive load, reducing effort when processing well-known perspectives. In product design, this principle is used to create designs that are easy to recognize and understand. In packaging, familiar perspectives can make a product more recognizable and approachable. Take the example of Pringles.

  • Consistent Can Shape: The Pringles can is a familiar cylindrical shape that stands out on the shelf due to its unique but consistent design. This familiar shape makes it easily recognizable and helps it stand out among other chip brands.
  • Standardized Logo Placement: The Pringles logo, featuring the face of Mr. Pringle, is always placed prominently at the top of the can. This consistent placement reinforces brand identity and makes it easy for consumers to identify the product quickly.
  • Predictable Color Scheme: Each flavor of Pringles uses a consistent and familiar color scheme that matches the flavor, such as red for original and green for sour cream and onion. This predictability helps consumers quickly find their preferred flavor.

In digital interfaces, familiar perspectives enhance user experience by making navigation intuitive and efficient. Consider the example of Microsoft Word:

  • Standard Toolbar Layout: The toolbar at the top of the screen features familiar icons and commands, such as “File,” “Edit,” and “View,” consistently placed across versions. This predictable layout helps users quickly find and use tools they need without relearning the interface. -
  • Consistent Document View: The main document area always displays the text in a standard page layout view. This familiar perspective ensures that users can easily understand and interact with their documents, just as they would with a physical sheet of paper.
  • Uniform Icons and Shortcuts: Commonly used functions like “Save,” “Print,” and “Undo” are represented by standard icons that have remained unchanged over the years. This consistency allows users to navigate the interface quickly and efficiently.

Law #8: Visual Metaphor

The Law of Visual Metaphor suggests that our brains derive deeper meaning and emotional resonance from visual representations that symbolize abstract concepts. Consider an image of a lightbulb above a person’s head, symbolizing an idea or inspiration.

In one visual metaphor experiment conducted by psychologists Ellen Winner and Howard Gardner, participants were shown a series of abstract paintings along with verbal metaphors and asked to match each painting to the metaphor it best represented. For instance, a painting with chaotic, jagged lines and dark colors might be matched with the metaphor “a stormy mind.” The study found that participants were remarkably consistent in their matches, indicating a shared cognitive ability to interpret and understand visual metaphors. This experiment demonstrated the power of visual metaphors in conveying complex ideas through simple, symbolic imagery.

The Law of Visual Metaphor is rooted in the brain’s ability to recognize and interpret symbolic imagery, a function primarily involving the right hemisphere, particularly the parietal and temporal lobes. These areas are responsible for visual perception and the integration of visual and semantic information. The prefrontal cortex is also engaged in the cognitive processing of abstract concepts and the emotional response elicited by the metaphor. This neural network enables the brain to create associations between visual elements and abstract ideas, enhancing communication and emotional engagement.

In product design, visual metaphors are utilized to convey brand values, product benefits, or user experiences in a more impactful and memorable way. In packaging, visual metaphors can convey deeper meanings and enhance the appeal of a product. Take the example of Dove soap.

  • Soft, Curved Shapes: The Dove soap packaging often features soft, curved shapes both in the design of the bar and the graphics on the box. These shapes metaphorically represent smoothness and softness, aligning with the product’s promise of gentle and moisturizing care.
  • White and Blue Color Scheme: The packaging uses a white and blue color scheme, with white symbolizing purity and cleanliness, and blue representing calmness and tranquility. This metaphorical use of color reinforces the product’s association with purity and a soothing bathing experience.
  • Dove Logo: The Dove logo itself is a visual metaphor, featuring the silhouette of a dove. This bird is commonly associated with peace, purity, and gentleness, which metaphorically conveys the brand’s promise of gentle care and peace of mind.

In digital interfaces, visual metaphors enhance user experience by making complex functions more intuitive and emotionally engaging. Consider the example of Dropbox’s interface:

  • Folder Icons: Dropbox uses folder icons to represent different files and documents. This visual metaphor aligns with physical folders used in offices, making it intuitive for users to understand and organize their digital files.
  • Paper Airplane for File Sharing: The icon for file sharing is a paper airplane. This visual metaphor conveys the idea of sending something quickly and easily, evoking the simplicity and speed of sharing files via Dropbox.
  • Cloud Symbol: The cloud icon represents the concept of cloud storage. This visual metaphor suggests that the data is safely stored and accessible from anywhere, reinforcing the product’s core functionality and reliability.


Embracing neuroaesthetics is about more than just using neuroscience to make products look good; it’s about crafting experiences that truly connect with users on a deeper level. By understanding how our brains naturally respond to visual stimuli, designers can create products that are not only visually stunning but also emotionally engaging and highly functional.

Neuroaesthetics bridges the gap between aesthetics and usability, ensuring that products meet both our emotional and practical needs. For entrepreneurs, integrating Ramachandran’s Eight Laws of Artistic Experience into the design process can significantly enhance a product’s marketability and user loyalty. These principles—focusing on elements like symmetry, high contrast, organized layouts, and symbolic imagery—play a crucial role in boosting user engagement and satisfaction.

By leveraging these insights, businesses can design products that are not only memorable and compelling but also stand out in a crowded market, fostering deeper connections with consumers and ultimately driving lasting commercial success.


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  • Ramachandran, V. S., & Hirstein, W. (1999). The science of art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(6-7), 15–51.
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