Forest for the Trees—Why We Recognize Faces & Constellations

A Ganado-style Navajo rugNational Park Service

For many thousands of years, and across cultures around the world, symmetry has been seen as beautiful. The mirror-image accuracy of the Parthenon is seen also in the Taj Mahal and the geometric patterns of traditional Navajo rugs. We see symmetry in more fluid, modern media, too, like the delicately mirrored shot composition of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick films. We’re even more likely to perceive a face as beautiful (pdf) if it is more symmetric. 

All of these are examples of bilateral symmetry—one half looks nearly identical to the other half. In a more general sense, symmetries are properties that remain invariant under some transformation; images with bilateral symmetry stay the same after reflectionacross a central line, for example. A recent synthesis of ideas from psychology suggests that symmetry, in this bigger sense, is not only aesthetically appealing but also important for how we visually make sense of the world. 

These symmetries are rarely properties of individual components of an image; rather, they emerge from the interactions between all elements in the scene. It

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